In a recent Stanford Daily article, it was reported that almost 1/5 of the class of 2013 was legacy, which, according to the article, was defined as having a predecessor who had attended Stanford, such as a parent or grandparent (the article claimed to ignore siblings, although the common application, as I recall it, did let one mention them). This percentage (18 percent) was significantly higher than that of Princeton, another selective university cited in the article as having only 12.7 percent legacies.
In the article, all parts of the Stanford admissions community insisted that, although legacy status matters, it was a minor part of getting accepted. This came in stark contrast to the statistic that legacy is worth an additional 160 points on the SAT versus a nonlegacy applicant, according to a study by a Princeton sociologist, Thomas Espenshade.
However, the statistics cited in the article are not enough to confirm or deny the importance of legacy. A more interesting statistic would be to look at the acceptance rate of legacy students versus that of the general population. In 2007, for example, legacy students made up 14 percent of the incoming class at Princeton, but had a nearly four times greater chance of getting in, with an acceptance rate of 39 percent versus 10.2 for the student body in general. Although, once factors such as socioeconomic background and parental education are controlled for, I would expect the power of legacy to be weaker, this astronomical difference, if true at Stanford, would certainly give a possibly excessive edge to legacy students.
A final point, also mentioned in the linked Daily Princetonian article above is a study done by Douglas Massey and Margarita Mooney which found that legacy students who were admitted with lower standards than the institution as a whole actually did perform worse at the school and worked less hard, something not found to be true for racial minorities or athletes.At the same time, [a Stanford Report article](http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/november30/shell-faculty-senate-120309.html), reporting on fiscal year 2009 fundraising, showed a picture of fundraising sources over 5 years, with alumni (including bequests) representing 56 percent of the total. It is not hard to imagine that alumni whose children attend the school or families with a history of Stanford attendance will contribute more than people who are attending Stanford as the first member of their family to do so, even controlling for the high likelihood that a “Stanford family” will be from a higher socio-economic class.
How should we interpret these figures? To what extent does accepting more legacy students improve fundraising and how do we balance a larger endowment (and thus a better educational experience) against possibility that better students are being excluded (and thus a worse educational experience)? In particular, I would be concerned about squeezing the middle: there is already an emphasis on people who are the first in their family to attend college and if the system of class-based affirmative action I mentioned previously were ever effected, it is likely that there would be even more people from this category. If we continued to emphasize legacy as well as the disadvantaged, then the middle, people from families with members who had attended colleges, likely state schools or other less elite universities, would be at a disadvantage.
Without actually seeing the effect of family dynasties on donations, I can’t answer this question, but it’s something to consider as Stanford’s admission policies evolve. Oh, and as a legacy with a sister looking at schools, it’ll be something close to my heart as well.