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No Legacy Quota

Thanks to Jim Kolesar ’74 for providing these comments on whether or not Williams has a (minimum) quota of about 12.5% on legacy admissions. Previous discussion here and here. Jim explains:

If a quota is a figure you hit precisely no matter what and a target is a figure you take all reasonable measures to try to hit as a minimum, legacies are neither. We give them extra consideration in the admission process, though their average academic rating is virtually indistinguishable from that of the class as a whole. After each admission cycle, we review the percentage and the academic preparation of the legacy group to see if we’re comfortable with where those measures fall. Virtually always we are. How those considerations play into the admission of individual legacies is another part of what makes the process an art rather than a science.

Also, the number of legacies in the class isn’t as constant as you imply. The percent of them in the class bounces between around 11% and 15%. That means the number can vary by roughly 50%.


1) Thanks to Jim for taking the time to explain this to that subset of the alumni community which is interested.

2) It would still be nice to see the actual data. There is a great senior thesis to be written about the history of legacy admissions at Williams.

3) “Bounce” is not the word that I would use to describe a statistic that moves from 11% to 15% and back. Moreover, if those are the minimum and maximum figures (rounded?) for the last 20 years, then “hold quite steady” is a more accurate desciption. Is there any other aspect of the admissions process at Williams that has been this stable for decades? None comes to mind. Also, I know no one who would describe changes in this range as a movement of “50%.”

4) The main reason to be suspicious — or pleased, depending on your point of view — is that the number/quality of legacy applicants relative to the pool of spots has changed so much in the last two decades. Back in the 80’s, all the legacy applicants had fathers who went to Williams in the era of 250 students per class. Also, those fathers [Sorry, Dad!] were not, on average, in the same academic league as later students. (Williams in the 1950’s was the Bates of its era, if that.) Since test scores and grades are correlated across generations — either because of nature or nurture — the children of 1950s graduates were not, I’ll wager, as nearly accomplished academically as the children of 1970s graduates. Morever, there were twice as many students in the 70s.

So, the number and quality of legacy applicants (assuming more or less stable fertility among Ephs over time, another great thesis topic) is much higher now than it was 20 years ago. And yet the College still enrolls about 60 each year. Why?

5) The obvious conclusion is that there is a “goal” if not a quota. In other words, Jim, as always, is telling us the truth. There is no exact “quota.” But the College has always looked favorably on the children of its alumni. The powers-that-be have always been “comfortable” with a class that is 12% or so legacies. Everything seems to work out. No one complains. 12% is enough to satisfy the Go-Williams faction. 12% does not seem to allow in unqualified students.

6) But, behind the scenes, the competition for those legacy slots has gone up, I bet. One of the most interesting parts of the Admissions Office tell-all (pdf) was this line:

In general, all applicants with a combined academic rating of 3 or higher are rejected at this point, unless the first and second readers have identified one or more “attributes” that warrant additional consideration.

Recall our discussion of academic ratings. My inference is that the only attributes which matter for 3’s and below are URM, tip or wealth. Being a legacy, like being a flutist, is nice but does not matter for admissions for 3’s and below because there are “enough” legacies and musicians among the 1’s and 2’s. This is consistent with our previous analysis of legacy SAT scores. There may be a few AR 3’s who get in just because of their legacy status, but there are not many.

Conclusion: All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. With 12% legacies, there is no grounds for anyone to complain that Williams does not let in enough alumni children. What do they want? 20% legacies? 50%? But, with the so many highly talented legacy applicants — a function of the increasing number and quality in the legacy pool — Williams gets enough legacies from the AR 1’s and 2’s that it does not need to go deeper in the pool.

Prediction: This trend will continue. Recall that “legacy” is defined as being the child or grandchild of an alum. The number of such legacies will be increasing as the larger and higher quality Williams classes of the 1970’s and later enter the grandparent years. Given the continuing test score stratification of American (and global?) society, these Eph families will be richer and more accomplished then ever, able to provide their children and grandchildren with every advantage imaginable. And, even better for Williams, these families will be filled with children who, like me, choose Williams because of those family connections.

There will soon come a day when Williams is able to reach its goal of 12% legacies without actually giving legacy applicants any advantage whatsoever in the process. I wonder how far away that day is.

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Comments Disabled To "No Legacy Quota"

#1 Comment By frank uible On August 7, 2006 @ 7:01 am

If the Williams of the 50s was the Bates of its era, what was the Williams of that era?

#2 Comment By just wondering On August 7, 2006 @ 7:08 am

Aren’t siblings of current or former Williams students considered legacies? Are they given no advantage over other applicants?

#3 Comment By eph06 On August 7, 2006 @ 2:09 pm

To just wondering: I don’t think having a sibling counts as a full legacy, but it certainly seems to help a little (or maybe it’s just the shared intelligence, motivation, and interest that leads lots of siblings to get in).

In my view legacy status doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight these days. It would be much more advantageous to be a URM or from the true middle class than to be a legacy. The legacies I knew at Williams were stratified. Most seemed to be better than average students and well integrated members of the community. They looked like ideal Williams students in most regards. A few I looked at wondered how on earth they got in.

I’m not convinced there’s a quota or target for legacies. For obvious reasons legacies will be qualified and interested in Williams. I bet the admissions people pay little attention to legacy status until the very last cut. I’d like to think (and am pretty confident) that my legacy status was not the deciding factor in my admission.

As far as the future goes, I’d love to maintain whatever legacy preference does exist. Given the rapidly growing population and limited supply of first rate schools, I’ll take any advantage I can get for getting my children into Williams.

#4 Comment By Aidan On August 7, 2006 @ 3:43 pm

Williams, at least as I’ve been lead to understand, was never Bates. If Williams was, in hindsight, more Bates-esque in the ’50s, we can only shudder to imagine what type of ag-school terrors Bates undergrads had to undergo.

#5 Comment By MikeyD223 On August 7, 2006 @ 3:43 pm

Legacy status provides a substantial boost at Williams, at least it did when I was a student. Presumably, legacies from wealthy families receive larger boosts than those from families with more modest bank accounts.

#6 Comment By David Kane On August 7, 2006 @ 4:00 pm

1) Morty tells the story of a college ranking of some sort from the 1950s in which Williams was #8. He uses this to illustrate the importance of not becoming complacent. Now whether or not a #8 ranking in 1958 is comparable to Bates ranking (#21 in USNWR) today is unclear. But a lot of not every smart people got into Williams in the 1950s. This was much less true in the 1980s.

2) I have heard that siblings (of current students) have a bit of an advantage if the current student has worked out, more to give a break to the parents than anything else. I have seen no statistics on this. Another great senior thesis!

3) Being a URM or a tip is much more important for admissions than being a legacy.

4) Wealthy applicants are in a different category all together. They are tagged separately by the Admissions Department. Wealth — meaning ability to and likelihood of giving 7 figure gifts to Williams — is much more important than legacy status. In other words, the only reason that legacy status adds anything to what wealth alone gives you is that, perhaps, it increases the College’s confidence that your family will come through with the gift. Two applicants from equally (super) generous families have the same chance, regardless if one is a legacy and the other is not.

#7 Comment By frank uible On August 7, 2006 @ 7:33 pm

The plot thickens – Morty, who were #1 through #7?

#8 Comment By just wondering On August 8, 2006 @ 7:10 am

eph06 – I happen to know that being a member of the ‘true middle class’ gives you exactly zero leg up in admissions. There is no socio-economic AA (at Williams and at most comparatble LACs, with one, ahem, otherwise inferior one being a notable exception) – possibly because only sketchy data are kept on the subject, so there is little motivation for colleges to make sure that there is real socio-economic diversity.

#9 Comment By eph06 On August 8, 2006 @ 6:43 pm

just wondering- I disagree in part. I agree that being squarely in the middle class earns no official admissions pull, but it is my understanding that students are judged by success in the opportunities available to them. I would wager the admissions committee is more impressed with a middle class student with huge SAT’s and activities than an “equally qualified” privileged student from a fancy prep school. Students with every advantage growing up are expected to be overwhelmingly qualified. Those who have achieved just as much from less privileged backgrounds are all the more impressive candidates.

#10 Comment By nMo On August 8, 2006 @ 8:51 pm


I view things a little differently than you. There are plenty of kids that are at Exeter that grew up middle class, were ranked number one at their ‘regular’ high school and had to struggle to get decent grades when they arrived at Exeter in the 10th or 11th grade.

a) Many of the kids at prep schools nowadays aren’t privileged

b) It is harder to make top grades at prep schools

My main point is that Williams needs to look at each applicant on a case by case basis (which I think they do well) and avoid generalities – one way or the other.

#11 Comment By eph06 On August 8, 2006 @ 9:54 pm

nMo- I did generalize the prep school type but I think my point still holds. I agree that many kids at prep schools aren’t from wealthy families. The other half, however, come from families that can afford $30k annually for highschool.
It is harder to make good grades at prepschool, and I’m confident the admissions committee factors this into its analysis. There were kids from the middle third of my prep school class at Ivy League schools. Clearly these colleges understood the quality of the pool as a whole.
In fact, I think we are making a very similar point. The admissions people consider applicants on an individual basis. I still believe, however, that given two equal paper applicants, the one from a less privileged background will be preferred (excluding the rare Wealth marker for future donations).