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.