In the global landscape, America stands out as a powerhouse in various realms, but nowhere is this more apparent than in higher education. The likes of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and MIT have achieved such iconic status that their logos even grace t-shirts sold by H&M. Pop culture, from Netflix series to Hollywood films, frequently showcases the allure of the college admissions process and the intellectual prowess of institutions like Princeton.
This exceptionalism in American universities is a strategic advantage that attracts countless aspiring minds from around the world. Many students dream of pursuing education in the U.S., with aspirations of building new lives here and contributing to its growth. This influx of bright minds fuels economic expansion, while also imbuing these individuals with American values.
The resilience of the U.S. higher education system is striking. While the top companies in the S&P 500 have seen significant changes over the past two decades, the top global universities, including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and Caltech, have maintained their preeminence.
Hailing from New Zealand and working with ambitious students from diverse backgrounds, I’ve observed what makes American universities stand out. To continue their global dominance, these institutions must recognize the sources of their strength, and one such advantage is legacy admissions.
When I first learned about legacy admissions, I was taken aback. This practice is uniquely American, absent in universities like Oxford or Cambridge. The concept may seem unusual and inequitable, but it’s an essential aspect of what makes American institutions special.
Comparing American universities to their global counterparts reveals a striking disparity. The top American institutions boast a strong sense of community, highly engaged and proud alumni networks, exceptional facilities, abundant resources, scholarships, and substantial endowments, which sustain their dominance in the competitive arena of global education.
Consider the case of Ken Griffin, the billionaire founder of Citadel, who has generously donated $500 million to Harvard over the years, specifically supporting financial aid initiatives. Such contributions expand access to these universities. Without the incentive provided by legacy admissions, would America have fostered such a robust culture of donations?
In contrast, Oxford, founded in 1096, has a smaller donation culture with less engaged alumni. Some of its prominent donors, like Bill Gates and Steven Schwarzman, never attended the university. Absent legacy admissions, Oxford has faced financial challenges in its history.
Harvard, on the other hand, cultivates an incredibly engaged alumni community, hosting frequent well-attended reunions, featuring advisory boards with prominent alumni, and delivering an aspirational message of lifelong community. Legacy admissions, which preferentially admit the children of alumni, play a pivotal role in fostering this sense of community. Attending these schools opens doors not just for the individual, but for their families and future generations.
As a New Zealand freshman at Harvard without any family connections or legacy benefits, I encountered classmates whose parents were Harvard graduates, deeply involved in the community. This experience made me feel part of a special, tightly-knit network that would impact not just my four years of education but also my family’s future. This drove me to give my all to this community.
While many benefits of top American universities would still exist without legacy admissions, this practice enhances the sense of community within the institution, enriching the experience for all. Although legacy admissions have historically favored white, affluent groups due to demographics, this is changing, and future legacy demographics will mirror today’s diverse student body.
Legacy admissions can be fine-tuned, adjusting the “bump” for legacy connections. However, the right to consider this as one factor in admissions is crucial. Psychologically, it makes admission to these universities even more enticing for prospective students.
Banning legacy admissions would weaken the sense of community and alumni engagement, diminishing the magic that drives students to strive for admission. This, in turn, would erode the competitive standing of American universities on the global stage.
Eliminating generational ties in U.S. universities would transform them into transactional, four-year academic experiences with students swiftly moving through without a lasting connection to campus. Many countries’ colleges operate in this manner, but it’s not the answer. Examples from Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom demonstrate the drawbacks of a more transactional university experience.
The advantages of highly engaged alumni, who generously donate, should be harnessed by universities to provide increasing financial aid for students from diverse backgrounds. A recent success story involves Koan Hemana, a Maori student from New Zealand, admitted to Harvard on a full financial aid package, showcasing how a strong community drives opportunities for underrepresented students.
Comparatively, Oxford has limited financial aid for international students and scholarships due to lower alumni donations. Legacy admissions, while imperfect, continue to bolster America’s top universities across multiple dimensions: diversity, funding, academic publication rates, student outcomes, and alumni engagement. To maintain global dominance in higher education, preserving this competitive advantage is essential.