Top Colleges Mum on Legacy Admissions

"While we remain committed to taking a close look at sons and daughters of alumni, their academic credentials are typically at least as strong as the rest of the admitted pool. As long as that is the case, it does not surprise me that their admit rate would stay relatively consistent," Bob Clagett, dean of admissions at Middlebury, wrote in an e-mail to ABC News.

"What you need to remember about legacies is that they are generally better qualified than other candidates, not weaker," said Bill Shain, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin College in Maine. "They come from homes that value education, and they've typically [come from] either good schools or good school systems."

At 18.4 percent, Bowdoin's overall acceptance rate this year rivaled Georgetown's and Middlebury's. Bowdoin's legacy admissions rate hovered above 40 percent in recent years. Officials said that figure has been dropping, though they couldn't say by how much.

"There are are alumni children with absolutely strong academic records who also don't get in," Shain said. "The system is hard for everybody. It doesn't matter what category you pick."

Helen Neuberger, a 1974 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, said she's heard from many fellow alumni whose children were denied acceptance at Penn. The Ivy League school, which also declined to disclose its legacy acceptance rate, offered admission to 16.4 percent of its applicants this year.

"I hear that all over, legacy children are being denied. It's hardly automatic that you get in," Neuberger said.

The Connecticut woman's18-year-old daughter, Margot, was more fortunate: Penn did accept her. But before the admission offer came, the Neubergers fretted.

"Everybody with a child applying to college knew it was gong to be an impossible year," Neuberger said. "I don't know a person who didn't worry."

For Love and Money

While some colleges are loath to speak publicly about legacy admissions preferences, there's been no shortage of public criticism on the issue.

President Bush, himself a third-generation Yale graduate, has said that colleges should eliminate legacy preferences.

"I think it ought to be based upon merit," Bush told attendees of the Unity: Journalists of Color convention in August 2004.

Legacy preferences seem to undermine the diversity goals purportedly espoused by elite colleges, said Daniel Golden, the author of "The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates." Golden won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on college admissions practices for The Wall Street Journal.

"The legacy students on the whole tend to be more affluent and whiter than the general population of students," Golden said in an interview with ABC News. "Those schools often profess to have this mission of elevating minorities and low-income students. In fact, legacy preference is one way that they kind of perpetuate the status quo."

But experts said universities have compelling reasons for sticking with legacy preferences. A basic one? Money.

Alumni contributed nearly $8.3 billion to their schools in 2007, according to the Council for Aid to Education. Alumni donations accounted for just under 28 percent of the total charitable funds contributed to the nation's colleges.

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