All in the family

The ins and outs of legacy admissions.

The ins and outs of legacy admissions

Santa Clara University is known for reaching out to students who are the first in their family to attend college. But along with that, to some it seems like most of the student body has a parent, sibling, or aunt who preceded them on the Mission Campus. Not quite, says Michael Sexton, vice president for enrollment management, although the number of students with familial ties to alumni—so-called legacy students—is significant.

Ten percent of current freshmen have a parent, step-parent, or grandparent who attended SCU, while 17 percent have a Bronco aunt, uncle, or cousin. And more than 8 percent of the class of ’14 have a sibling on campus or one who recently graduated. Those numbers are not mutually exclusive; together they mean that, according to Sexton, “More than a quarter of incoming freshmen have some alumni relation with the University.”

But having a Bronco for a relative is no guarantee of acceptance. Last year, SCU admitted about 58 percent of all students who applied. About 70 percent of legacy applicants whose parents or grandparents attended were admitted. Other legacy groups had lower rates of acceptance but were still above the overall rate.

How does that compare to elsewhere? Many colleges are reluctant to divulge those legacy admission statistics. But class profiles can be telling; for example, the profile of Princeton University’s Class of 2014 shows the acceptance rate for children of alumni is four times the overall acceptance rate. Legacy admissions isn’t without its critics. Richard Kahlenberg is editor of Affirmative Action for the Rich, a recently published collection of essays highly critical of legacy admissions in the United States. He says that according to research in the book by Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Golden, between 10 and 25 percent of students at selective institutions are legacy admits, which “suggests that Santa Clara is right in there where others are.” But in terms of the “bump up” differential that gives legacy applicants preferential treatment, he says that SCU is “on the low end,” particularly compared with universities like Princeton.

But as many alumni from multi-generational Bronco families would be quick to counter, having a core of legacy alumni helps carry on a sense of history and tradition. At SCU, legacy applicants also tend to come from households with strong educational values where they understand the mission of the University, notes Sandra Hayes, SCU’s dean of admission. That alumni connection is just one piece of a complex puzzle considered during the admission process. “Academic achievement is where we start when we look at an application,” Hayes notes. “Then we add on other factors.”

Those other factors run quite a gamut. “No applicant has just one identity,” Sexton explains. “A legacy is not just a legacy. It might be someone who plays the trumpet, is a student leader, wants to go into the new bioengineering program, and comes from Nebraska. Being a legacy is a positive—but only if the student is in the admissible pool, where we can say, ‘We think this person can walk into our Core Curriculum and be academically successful.’ If we don’t think that, we really are doing a disservice to everybody if we admit the student.”

Sexton says that most serious legacy applicants apply Early Action—by Nov. 1. “Early Action students are admitted at a higher rate and enroll at a higher rate,” he says.

But what if … ?

Not surprising, some alumni take it personally if their offspring aren’t admitted. Kathryn Kale ’86, executive director of the SCU Alumni Association, notes that three- and four-generation Bronco families are a strong testament to the power of a Santa Clara experience. “It changes your life in such an important way,” she says. “I think it says a lot about SCU that alumni parents want their children to have the same life-shaping experience they did.”

Nancy Trish Calderon serves as assistant vice president for development at SCU. “There is often an expectation among alumni that Santa Clara is a family, and their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandsons and granddaughters, will have the opportunity to come to Santa Clara,” she says. “But the University has evolved. The academic thresholds were so completely different in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s than they are now.” Alumni, she says, might think about their son or daughter and say, “‘He or she did better in school than I did and I got in, so why aren’t they getting in?’ It’s just that the bar’s a lot higher.”

Consider the numbers: For fall 2011, there were around 13,300 applicants overall—including 2,600 legacy applicants—for a freshman class size of 1,275.

Though the University does not officially track how admissions might affect giving by particular alumni, Calderon has seen rejection of a legacy student translate into a decrease in giving from some alumni. But that is not always the case, particularly when the student finds a different school that is a good fit. “Alumni come back because they say, ‘Maybe that wasn’t a mistake. Maybe Santa Clara wasn’t the right place for the student.’”


Even if enrollment as a freshman is not in the cards, students may not be shut out of SCU altogether. “We aren’t all on the same biological and intellectual time clock,” Mike Sexton says. “We have transfers who mature later, or had a deficit in their curriculum. They enroll elsewhere. They mature. They address their curricular deficits and show us proof of college-level success. Lo and behold, they are very attractive candidates as transfers.”

Word has gotten around about that route; this past year, transfer applications were up 28 percent. And as Kathryn Kale and many alumni would attest, whether a student comes to Santa Clara in their first year of college or their third—and whether they’re the first in their family or the fourth generation to attend—they may well find that the experience on the Mission Campus leaves them transformed.

Anne Federwisch

post-image Record year: Eva Blanco, assistant dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, with thousands of application files Photo: Charles Barry
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