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End legacy admissions

February 10, 2023

This piece represents the opinion of the Bowdoin Orient Editorial Board.

“What you need to remember about legacies is that they are generally better qualified than other candidates, not weaker,” Bill Shain, former Dean of Admissions at the College (2006–2008) said in a 2008 interview with ABC News. “They come from homes that value education, and they’ve typically [come from] either good schools or good school systems.”

Fifteen years later, the values of the Bowdoin admissions office differ radically from those represented in this quote. Each year, the student body has become more diverse. Most recently, the Class of 2026 comprises 42 percent students of color and 17 percent first-generation students, whereas the Class of 2012 (admitted in the same year Shain was interviewed) comprised only 32 percent students of color. There is no data on first-generation applicants from that year.

Despite these advancements, legacy admissions remains a practice in Bowdoin admissions, although nothing on its website addresses legacy admissions explicitly.

In 2021, Amherst College announced that it would no longer consider legacy status as a factor in admissions, joining a small but growing number of colleges and universities across the nation.

Bowdoin ought to follow suit.

In many other ways, the Office of Admissions has been a trailblazer in making college admissions more progressive, leading the move toward test-optional admissions and eliminating the application fee for first-generation and financial-aid-seeking applicants.

Most recently, this summer the College made international admissions need-blind. Dean of Admissions Claudia Marroquin ’06 credits this change with contributing to the significant increase in the overall number of applications in this year’s admissions cycle from international students but also from “domestic first-generation students, domestic students of color and students applying for aid overall,” Marroquin said in an interview.

Yet on the front of ending legacy preferences, it lags.

A holistic approach to admissions should take into account what a student can bring to the table, not whether their parents can recite the names of all the first-year bricks.

Legacy admissions were originally designed to protect wealthy, white and Protestant applicants from increasing ethnic diversity in applicants at top colleges. While legacy is no longer designed to inhibit diversity, the practice is a product of discrimination and no longer belongs in the admissions process at the College. Yet that does not mean the change would come without criticism.

Some proponents of legacy admissions may fear that ending the practice might make alumni reluctant to donate to the College. Research suggests these concerns are unfounded: A study conducted from 1988 to 2008 that analyzed one hundred institutions of higher learning concluded, “there is no statistically significant evidence that legacy preferences impact total alumni giving.”

Ending legacy admissions would not be a cure-all in the effort to combat inequity in college admissions. But it would remove a vestige of an outdated approach—one that privileges entrenched connections over the content of each individual’s application.

The variety of backgrounds, cultures and identities at Bowdoin is essential to building a strong community in which every individual can flourish. A system that accounts for legacy status in its admission process inhibits the College from admitting the wide range of students that is foundational to the campus’ character.

This editorial represents the majority opinion of the Editorial Board, which is composed of Sam Borne, Catalina Escobedo, Nikki Harris, John Schubert, Juliana Vandermark, Mina Zanganeh, Halina Bennet and Seamus Frey.


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One comment:

  1. Student '20 says:

    If Shane’s comment that legacy applicants possess stronger qualifications than non-legacies, why would they need a leg up in admissions? The policy goal of having multi-generational Bowdoin families would come about without any special boost if they are indeed the most qualified applicants. The legacy preferences are either unnecessary, or else they give an unfair advantage to applicants based not on their merits but on who their parents are. I agree with the Orient — time to end this practice.

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