With the first round of early decision applications due Monday, the annual fervor of admissions season has kicked into gear. Much of the national media's attention this fall has been directed at the ethics of legacy admissions at selective colleges and universities. Like almost all liberal arts colleges, Bowdoin factors an applicant's relation to an alumnus of the College into its admissions decisions, and data shows that legacy students are on average about twice as likely to gain admission than non-legacy applicants.
Data from the Office of Institutional Research dating back to the admission of the Class of 1997 shows that the average admission rate for legacy students over the past 17 years is 54 percent. Over that time period, the legacy admission rate was an average of 2.15 times higher than the overall admission rate.
The ratio between the overall admit rate and the legacy admit rate has been increased in recent years, from a low ratio of 1.61 for the Class of 2004 to a high ratio of 2.59 for the Class of 2011.
Asked to comment on this data, Dean of Admissions Scott Meiklejohn wrote in an e-mail to the Orient, "The annual admit rate is naturally going to fluctuate up and down—we don't have a quota or target, and the results each year will depend on the credentials of the students who apply."
"Since I have been in this office, the average legacy [admission] rate for the past three classes ('12, '13, '14) is 44 percent. The level of competition also means that many strong legacy candidates who have turned in very good high school records at excellent schools will not be admitted," wrote Meiklejohn.
President Barry Mills said that the College gives preference to legacy applicants just as it does to students of diverse racial and geographic backgrounds in its efforts to shape a class. "Just like we put our finger on the scale for students from Maine, [and for] all different kinds of students in admissions, we put our finger on the scale for legacies," he said.
Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation and editor of the book "Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions," commented on the status of legacy admissions in higher education with regard to Bowdoin's statistics.
"According to the research in our new book, about 75 percent of the top 100 national research universities employ legacy preferences, as do virtually all of the top 100 liberal arts colleges," wrote Kahlenberg in an e-mail to the Orient.
Kahlenberg cited data from Daniel Golden, author of the book "The Price of Admissions," which compares legacy admission rates at different schools. "Princeton admitted 41.7 percent of legacy applicants in 2009, more than 4.5 times the 9.2 percent rate of non-legacies. Likewise, the University of Pennsylvania admitted 33.9 percent of legacy applicants in 2008, about double its overall admissions rate of 16.4 percent," Golden reports.
"Overall, legacies make up between 10 to 25 percent of the freshman class at many selective institutions," wrote Kahlenberg.
In contrast, Bowdoin's population of legacy students hovers around 7 percent, notably lower other institutions.
"I'm pretty comfortable" with the classes of the College being "about 7 percent legacy," said Meikeljohn.
Mills said that he would not like to see Bowdoin's percentage of matriculated legacy students rival that of peer schools with higher numbers.
"I know that the percentage of legacies on this campus isn't as high as it is at many institutions like us and I actually would not aspire to be at the highest of those levels," he said.
After each round of applications, the Office of Admissions sends a list of legacy applicants to the Office of Planning and Development.
Senior Vice President for Planning & Development Bill Torrey said, "We'll look at the list and I will let [Meiklejohn] know of any people that have contacted me about their child [who has] applied. Or, I'll let him know of any people that I see on the list that I think it's especially important that they take a close look at, because they're people that I've come to know through alumni activities."
Though the Office of Admissions corresponds with the Office of Planning and Development, Torrey stressed that alumni giving is never a determining factor in admission decisions. "No person [who] applies to Bowdoin is accepted because of a donation. If people are here it is because they deserve to be here," he said.
One of the strongest criticisms of legacy admissions is the allegation that colleges give preference to legacy students in order to maintain a certain volume of alumni giving.
"In a study by Chad Coffman and colleagues included in our book, the existence of legacy preferences per se does not increase alumni donations, contrary to conventional wisdom," wrote Kahlenberg.
Bowdoin's justification for its legacy admission practices is not based on financial reasons, as the College boasts one of the highest rates of alumni giving while the percentage of legacy students on campus is lower than many peer schools.
"Bowdoin has one of the highest rates of alumni giving of any college in the country and it's the envy of most colleges and universities, said Torrey. "Bowdoin alumni give annually somewhere in the range, and have for the last 20 [years], between 50 to 60 percent annually."
"About 90 percent of the gifts that come into Bowdoin on an annual basis come from alumni. That's a real statement that people [who] went here support the College and believe in the place," said Torrey.
Both Mills and Meiklejohn spoke against the misconception that legacies are admitted for financial reasons.
"I think that the assumption that legacy admissions is about admitting the sons and daughters of rich people is incorrect," said Mills.
"There are plenty of legacy students here who are on financial aid," said Meiklejohn.
According to Meiklejohn, the admission of legacy students is balanced with the admission of students from Maine, students of color, and students from diverse geographic and ethnic backgrounds.
"The Class of 2014 at Bowdoin set all-time records for the percentage of the class on financial aid, number of students of color, number of National Merit Finalists, percentage of first-generation [College] students, and percentage of the class from outside New England," wrote Meiklejohn in an e-mail to the Orient. "It's hard to keep all of the College's needs in balance, but I think those results say that whatever attention we are paying to legacy admission is not preventing Bowdoin from enrolling an incredibly accomplished and diverse class."
"Most of the legacy students who get in are really strong, and they're in the top 10 percent of their class; they did well on their tests and they're A students, and it happens that they have [a] mother or father who went to Bowdoin," said Meiklejohn.
As the College's student diversity has increased over the past several decades, so too has its legacy pool.
Torrey said that the legacy pool of applicants "reflects how the College has evolved over the last 10 to 20 years, as we have had more geographic, ethnic and economic diversity. We have begun to see more applicants of color in the legacy pool and more geographically diverse pools, so it mirrors what the institution has become."
"Although there are no quotas anywhere in terms of what we do, it's important for us to look at what our population and demographics look like. We have to make sure that we aren't finding ourselves merely replicating family traditions of the past," said Mills. "It's a hard issue because you both want to maintain family ties and create new family ties."
The issue of legacy admissions ultimately comes down to the College's obligation to maintain a relationship with its alumni base.
"The fact that the College does pay attention to the fact that somebody's son or daughter is applying who happened to go to Bowdoin is very important [for] the sense of connection that people have to the school," said Mills.
"[Bowdoin is] a small college and I think people feel like when they go here, it's not just four years; it's a lifelong relationship with the College," said Torrey. "It's a process with integrity, it's a process that's fair, and I believe in it."