“A More Even Playing Field.” How Would the End of Legacy Admissions Impact Alumni Giving?

Harvard University. Jay Yuan/shutterstock

Just a few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine too many university administrators implementing a policy that could reduce donations from wealthy donors, especially as colleges have become increasingly reliant on them. But they may end up doing just that with the potential demise of legacy preferences, which incentivizes alumni to make donations to give their kids an edge in the admissions process.

It’s a testament to the disruption that is rippling through the world of college admissions and fundraising following the Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action in higher education. There is, of course, a longstanding argument that ditching legacy admissions is simply the right thing to do, but with diversity goals in peril and university practices under a microscope, it’s suddenly a much more likely reality. And while it could indeed land a blow to high-dollar fundraising, it could also be part of a welcome shift in who supports universities and why.

Legacy admissions have been controversial for years, but the debate intensified after the Supreme Court’s decision. On July 25, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it was investigating whether Harvard University “discriminates on the basis of race by using donor and legacy preferences in its undergraduate admissions process” under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Some school officials have gone on the record stating that “there would be substantial costs” to ending legacy admissions. On the other hand, less than a week after the DOE’s announcement, Wesleyan University announced it ended the practice, and President Michael Roth told Inside Higher Ed that he’s received “uniformly positive” feedback from constituents and believes he’ll be able to raise money off the policy change.

So which is it? Will universities alienate older alumni and take a fundraising hit? Or will they reap a windfall from approving graduates, especially those who are younger and more diverse?

Regardless, many administrators at the more than 700 colleges that consider legacy status in their admissions see the writing on the wall. In the last week alone, we’ve seen calls to abolish the policy in Wisconsin, New York State, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and last month, congressional Democrats reintroduced a bill that would prohibit schools that receive federal funds from giving preferential treatment to children of alumni and donors.

One can imagine leaders huddled in a conference room discussing how the move might impact them, and ways to plug potential shortfalls if the practice is ended. While higher ed fundraising experts don't uniformly agree on the matter, administrators weighing a policy change will likely need to execute a combination of risk mitigation, scenario planning and some armchair psychology.

The possibility of depressed giving

There is research that suggests that universities that end legacy preferences could take a hit to fundraising. In October 2022, the American Sociological Review published a study that found that “legacies make better alumni after graduation and have wealthier parents who are materially positioned to be more generous donors than non-legacy parents.” The pair showed that in a higher ed fundraising landscape dominated by critical “top of the pyramid” givers, 42% of legacy graduates and their families were flagged as potential “top donors” versus 6% of non-legacy graduates.

The fact that schools are so reliant on those wealthy alumni in the first place is part of the problem itself, but it does suggest that ending legacy admissions would reduce revenue. Of course, few readers will lose sleep if fundraisers at a school like Harvard, which has a $53 billion endowment and a big Rolodex of billionaire alumni, is subjected to what is basically a rounding error. Administrators also realize this, which is why they claim that beyond building a sense of intergenerational loyalty, legacy preferences, to quote the New York TimesDealBook newsletter, “are important for maintaining relationships with alumni, which can help universities raise money that is then available for financial aid to needy students.”

This argument would be far less compelling if schools used alumni money for football stadiums or sparkling new dorms. But by pointing to financial aid, they claim that abolishing the practice would adversely harm low-income students, and no one wants that, do they? It reads less like a defense and more like a threat.

The “overplayed” financial impact of legacy giving

Setting aside the glaring ethical issues, opponents of legacy admissions deploy multiple arguments minimizing its impact on universities’ fundraising haul.

The first is that there is, in fact, no overt connection between the policy and alumni giving. In 2010, researchers Chad Coffman, Tara O’Neil and Brian Starr concluded that “after inclusion of appropriate controls, including wealth, there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities” between 1998 and 2008 for the top 100 universities.

Others argue that while there may be a connection in some cases, it is, to quote fundraising consultant Mickey Munley, “overplayed.” Speaking to the Times in late July, Munley said, “No fundraising shop is going to have to make up half of their gift revenue if there’s a change in the admission office about legacy admissions.” Probably true, but overworked advancement officers may still be bracing themselves for a smaller but much more plausible 10% decline.

Legacy opponents also argue that regardless of how much the policy incentivizes alumni donations, some schools can afford to eliminate it. “Universities with enough wealth can take the risk to demonstrate their commitment to a more even playing field,” said Don Hasseltine, senior consultant and vice president at the Aspen Leadership Group. Of course, what a school can afford is relative in a space where affluent Ivies continue to cling to the policy. That said, it appears that one important condition for abolishing the program is ensuring that the school has the requisite financial cover if legacy donors do, in fact, withhold support.

When Amherst College abolished the practice in 2021, president Biddy Martin said, “We are doing what we’re doing because we can, and because we should,” At the time, its endowment was roughly $3.8 billion. The previous year, Johns Hopkins University (JHU) President Ronald J. Daniels announced the school had formally ended legacy preferences in the admissions process in 2019. It did so thanks to “the help of a $1.8 billion gift from Michael Bloomberg to support undergraduate financial aid.”

Nor does it appear that JHU has had trouble raising boatloads of money after doing away with the policy. A look at the school’s Form 990s shows that its incoming contributions and grants rose from $2.16 billion for the fiscal year ending June 2018 to $2.45 billion in 2021. Setting aside the unprovable possibility that JHU could have raised more money if it kept the policy in place, the numbers show that the decision didn’t egregiously backfire from a fundraising perspective.

“I can raise a lot of money”

All of which brings us back to Wesleyan’s decision to abolish legacy preferences. President Roth told Inside Higher Ed that in 2018, he broached the idea of ending legacies with young, diverse alumni, but they were “very strongly opposed” to the idea. Their reaction flies in the face of conventional wisdom that schools would receive pushback from older and more affluent alumni parents. It also suggests how quickly opinions have changed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action.

“If I thought I couldn’t raise money because of this, I would have to find a different line of work, because this is the right thing to do,” Roth said on the heels of Wesleyan’s announcement. “But I believe I can raise a lot of money from Wesleyan alums who are genuinely pleased to support an institution that’s aligned with their values.”

By framing the policy change as a values-based down payment that engenders goodwill and generates financial support from donors, Roth lays out a fundraising roadmap for universities that may abolish the policy. Young alumni should be especially open to this messaging, as research suggests they’re more attuned to issues like social justice and racial equity compared to their generational predecessors. (It’s no coincidence that Leave Your Legacy, a campaign launched in partnership with EdMobilizer that encourages young alumni to withhold donations from their legacy alma maters, was founded by Viet Nguyen, a Brown graduate and Generation Zer.)

This approach has its drawbacks. Most notably, younger alumni also have substantially less disposable income than their top-of-the-pyramid peers and need time to grow into their giving — assuming, of course, they support their alma maters later in life. But Roth’s moral argument (“this is the right thing to do”) can also resonate with childless alumni and those with grown children, those who are content if their kid attends another college, along with graduates who were never fond of legacy admissions in the first place.

Officials at schools where the policy is still in place could emulate Wesleyan’s approach by ending the policy and embarking on a values-based messaging campaign that generates positive PR and a likely boost in applications. Alumni donations may decline or remain flat, but the school won’t shutter its doors. Donations could even increase. I don’t claim to know what makes these officials tick; their unwillingness to axe the policy can likely be summed up in three words: “Why risk it?”