A Symposium on Legacy Admissions: Joshua T. Katz

Losing First-Generation Legacies?

Joshua T. Katz

Editor’s Note: The National Association of Scholars has begun a symposium on legacy admissions. Legacy admissions has become a political issue in the wake of the SFFA v. Harvard decision. It has become so in good measure due to tactical polemic by supporters of race discrimination, who wrongly seek to create a moral equivalence between race discrimination and legacy admissions, and who equally wrongly seek to use legacy admissions to substantiate their claims that America and its colleges and universities are “systemically racist.” Yet even though legacy admissions is not racially discriminatory, it is subject to a variety of other critiques and defenses—where NAS members and staff appear to be split in their judgments about the value of legacy admissions.

Precisely because of this split, we thought it would be useful to publish a symposium on the subject during the coming months.

We encourage NAS members and staff—and, indeed, any interested reader—to contribute to this symposium. Please contact David Randall ([email protected]) and/or Neetu Arnold ([email protected]) if you would like to submit a contribution.

Our second essay is by Joshua T. Katz, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and incoming member of the NAS Board of Directors.


The recent Supreme Court case Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College has unleashed a torrent of commentary about college admissions that goes well beyond the matter of race. In particular, the practice of giving preference to applicants whose parents (and sometimes grandparents and great-grandparents) attended a given institution—that is to say, to legacy candidates—is now squarely in the bullseye, with both Justice Gorsuch, who joined Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion and wrote a concurring opinion of his own, and Justice Sotomayor, who dissented, taking explicit aim. Within days, there was an EEOC complaint against Harvard, and the Department of Education has announced that it is following up.

It is not clear to me that legacy admissions is (or should be) against the law, but even if it isn’t (or shouldn’t be), the intellectual and moral problems with the practice are a matter on which Right and Left largely agree. I won’t offer full-throated support, not least because I wouldn’t believe my own words. That said, I appreciate much of what Harvard professor James Hankins says in his (nearly lone) defense of legacy admissions, and I stand with my American Enterprise Institute colleague Jonah Goldberg when he writes in an excellent piece on the topic that he’s “not a big fan of sudden bipartisan consensuses.”

The majority of American colleges and universities accept most applicants, so the fuss over admissions concerns only elite, especially ultra-elite, institutions like Harvard and the University of North Carolina. In which respects Harvard and UNC do and do not deserve to be considered elite is another subject, but the fact is that institutions become elite (the word goes back to Latin eligere, a compound of e- “out of” and legere “to choose”) by electing (again, eligere) and selecting (seligere: se- “separate” and legere) their chosen people, a task that naturally involves discernment and, yes, discrimination (both connected to discernere: dis- “apart” and cernere “to distinguish”). At issue, then, is what forms of election and discrimination are acceptable.

To figure this out, we need to understand the purpose of the institution known as college. In my view, one of its main purposes—not the only one, but it looms large—is to incubate talent. And I’ll go further: while there is much more to college than academics, academics are far and away its primary concern. If you agree with me, then you believe that what a college should wish to do is maximize academic talent.

Let me be anecdotal. I was on the Princeton faculty from 1998 to 2022, teaching and advising a couple thousand students. Year after year, a high percentage of the undergraduates who most impressed me with a combination of native smarts and work ethic belonged to two groups that, by definition, don’t overlap: legacies (the word goes back to Latin legare “to send as an envoy; bequeath,” which may be related at the level of the root to legere) and first-generation students. Of course others impressed me greatly as well, and certainly there were legacy and first-gen students whom I myself wouldn’t have admitted. But it was striking how many of these young people regularly earned uninflated high A’s and, on occasion, a coveted A+.

The two groups have something important in common: others wonder, not always silently, whether they really deserve to be there. My guess is that many of the especially impressive legacies and especially impressive first-gen students work extra hard to counter such pernicious pigeonholing—with salutary effect.

Now, the more first-gen students a college admits, the greater the potential for non-traditional legacies in the future: first-gen legacies, to coin a term. It is hardly news that elite universities these days work hard to admit ever more students who do not fit the stereotype. Take Princeton. In 2021, 10% of newly admitted undergraduates were children of alumni, but 22% were first-gen students.

As for who actually enrolled in the Class of 2025 (some having deferred from previous years), it would appear that most of the admitted legacies did chose Princeton (the university can be cagey about releasing such statistics), while first-gen students made up 18% of the entering class. Princeton stopped publishing certain admissions statistics after 2021, so it is not possible to know exactly what has happened since then, but the Class of 2026 looks comparable: 10% legacies and 17% first-gen students. Some reported percentages have no doubt been manipulated up or down to suit one or another sociopolitical purpose, but the overall “percentage of the student body that claims Princeton heritage” appears not to have fallen below 11.5% in recent years, which is a smaller figure, in any case, than the number of first-gen students.

Which brings me to this claim: in the coming decades, more first-gen alumni will want their children to follow in their footsteps and will be unhappy if legacy admissions is eliminated just in time for them not to benefit from it. Ashton Lattimore, once a Harvard undergraduate, made much the same point in a 2018 op-ed—though with the crucial difference that she, who nonetheless opposes legacy admissions and supports affirmative action as conventionally understood, focuses on people of color, whereas mine is on first-gen students regardless of race. Be that as it may, one of the reasons I’m sad no longer to be a professor is that I would have liked to have stuck around long enough to teach the legacy children of all my best students, very much including the first-gen ones.


Photo by Ken Lund, Flickr

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