April 11, 2008 — -- Across the country, the nation's top students are feeling a pain that comes in the form of a dreaded thin envelope.
The most selective universities in the country this year posted record-low admission rates that dipped into the single digits — a result, many officials say, of sky-high application totals. As colleges such as Harvard and Princeton released their rates, they also touted the diverse backgrounds of successful applicants, who include students of color and international candidates.
But there's at least one admissions statistic that many top colleges don't trumpet: the rate of acceptance among legacy students, that is, students who attend the same schools as their parents and, in some cases, grandparents.
Traditionally, legacy applicants are accepted at higher rates than their peers. That's something that elite schools don't care to flaunt, said college consultant Michele Hernandez, a former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College.
"Even in a lean year, [colleges] still try to keep the number of legacy admits consistent from year to year," she said. "It's embarrassing. They don't want to come out and say, 'Hey, the overall admit rate was 10 percent but for legacies it's 35.' It makes the general public mad."
ABC News contacted several universities boasting record-low acceptance rates this year to ask whether their legacy acceptance rates had also dropped. Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown and Stanford — which this year reported acceptance rates of 7.1 percent, 8.7 percent, 18 percent and 9.5 percent, respectively — all declined to provide information.
Yale spokeswoman Gila Reinstein said the university — which accepted 8.3 percent of its applicants — does not calculate admission rates for subgroups, including legacies. Yale does, however, keep records on its Web site that show that legacy students have made up between 13 and 16 percent of incoming classes in the last 10 years.
While legacy status "is certainly one of the many factors that is considered," Reinstein said, "it's far from the most important."
Among those schools that did provide legacy admission statistics, the results were mixed.
At 40 percent, Princeton's legacy acceptance rate is more than four times higher than the rate of its general applicant pool. A decade ago, the contrast between Princeton's legacy and overall admission rates was less stark, albeit marginally so: The university admitted 40.2 percent of legacy applicants and 13.1 percent of applicants overall.
Dartmouth, which offered admission to 13.2 percent of its applicants this year, reported that its legacy acceptance rate was consistently 2 to 2½ times higher than that of its overall acceptance rate. As the college's general rate dropped over the years, its legacy rate did, too.
But the fact that more Dartmouth legacy applicants are being rejected doesn't mean that fewer get in; the college conceded that it accepted 164 children of alumni this year, the highest total in five years.
Admissions officials at Princeton and Dartmouth declined interviews.
Middlebury College in Vermont was unapologetic about its legacy acceptance rate, which it said remained steady at roughly 48 percent in recent years. The college's overall acceptance rate this year was 18 percent, also a record low.
"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."
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.
"Rightly or wrongly, most schools believe that legacy preference is vital to their fundraising. They believe if they don't give preference to children of alumni, those alumni won't give as much money," Golden said.
It may not be an unreasonable concern. In a 2007 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, two economists chronicled their study of alumni donations at an unnamed selective university. They found that money given by alumni dropped off dramatically when their children were rejected from the university.
Bill Torrey, the chief development officer at Bowdoin College, has experienced the phenomenon firsthand. In his 19 years at Bowdoin, Torrey said he has heard from more than 100 alumni who said they were cutting off their contributions after the rejection of a child or another relative.
But "in most cases, time heals wounds," he said. If a rejected applicant goes on to another college and does well, Torrey said, alumni often "return to the fold."
Hernandez said that when it comes to alumni cash, the size of donations may pale in importance to the percentage of alumni who give. She noted that the magazine U.S. News & World Report uses the rate of giving among alumni as one of its factors in determining its closely watched annual college rankings.
"If you were trying to decide between five schools, wouldn't you want one where the alums love the school? … They want the class participation rate to look high so it looks like people love the school," Hernandez said. "That, in turn, attracts better applicants."
Such benefits notwithstanding, a handful of schools have ended preferences for legacy applicants. Among them is the California Institute of Technology, better known as Cal Tech. This year, the university reported an acceptance rate of just over 17 percent.
The school, Golden said, still raises "considerable amounts of money."
"It may not be as easy," he said, "but you have to appeal to your alumni on other grounds than just their children's admission."
Torrey, of Bowdoin, said that legacy preferences engender alumni loyalty evinced in more than just dollars. Loyal alumni, he said, recommend the school to others, recruit students and can provide career or graduate school guidance to undergraduates.
College officials, Torrey said, "can't say, 'Please be loyal to the place,'" and then not pay attention when an alumnus' son or daughter applies. He said he would feel uncomfortable if the college didn't devote special attention to legacy candidates.
When it comes to reviewing their applications, Torrey said, "We really do bend over backward."