Dartmouth College weighs admissions preference for legacy students, push for diversity

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 04-24-2022 6:20 AM

HANOVER — Gab Smith understands both sides of the conversation surrounding legacy students and Black students at the nation’s elite colleges and universities.

A senior at Dartmouth College, Smith is a Black legacy student. Her mother, Tracey Salmon-Smith, is president of Dartmouth’s 1987 Alumni Class and involved with Black Alumni at Dartmouth Association.

Gab Smith describes having grown up around other Black Dartmouth alumni, and she came to Hanover often before first arriving as a student. But even with a family legacy at the college, Smith said the campus culture doesn’t make it easy to be Black and Big Green.

“I think that Dartmouth is a very strange place to be Black in. You’re like — I’m in this liberal arts school in New Hampshire. There are no Black people here. The only Black people here are also Dartmouth students,” Smith said.

“And the culture here is very crunchy and outdoorsy. We’re in the Upper Valley, and the Upper Valley is just like a very rural part of America that a lot of Black people aren’t used to.”

The question of who is made to feel most at home at Dartmouth was raised earlier this year when an Associated Press survey found the college was among eight highly competitive schools with more legacy admissions than Black admissions in the Class of 2025. A legacy student is generally defined as an applicant who received preferential consideration because a family member is an alumnus of the school.

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With 1,220 students, last fall’s freshman class was the largest in Dartmouth history. It included 136 legacy students and 120 Black students, according to Diana Lawrence, Dartmouth’s associate vice president for communications. Eight of the Black students were also legacy.

Lawrence noted that the legacy numbers in the Class of ’25 are inflated compared with prior years because 30 of the legacy students who started school last fall were admitted with the Class of 2024 and took a gap year. None of the Black students who were admitted for 2024 chose to take a gap year.

Dr. Jasmine Harris, director of the African American Studies program at University of Texas, San Antonio, researches the impact legacy admissions have on a school’s racial diversity. She urged a careful consideration of the statistics.

“There’s a reason why none of the Black students took a gap year and 30 of the legacy students did. Legacy students are more likely to be upper-middle class, upper class students, who have the ability to take a year off of school like that,” Harris said.

“We’re talking about institutions that are built on hundreds of years of racialized and gendered exclusion, and so that means that the likelihood that someone is a legacy at these schools and also a person of color is much smaller than for white students.”

Legacy admissions preference is practiced by 73% of the most selective colleges in the country, defined as those that admit less than 25% of applicants. A 2011 study found that alumni offspring, disproportionately affluent and white, were more than three times as likely to be admitted to these selective colleges as non-legacy students. Amherst College made waves last year when it joined other prestigious universities, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University, in ending the legacy advantage in the admissions process.

The practice has recently returned to the spotlight with the introduction of the Fair College Admissions for Students Act into Congress in February. If passed, the Act would essentially make preferential admissions based on legacy status illegal for any college that participates in federal student-aid programs.

Some of Dartmouth’s Black students and alumni said issues of minority recruitment and retention shouldn’t be linked to the national conversation about the ethics of legacy admissions.

Karim Marshall, who graduated from Dartmouth in 2003 with a double major in international relations and sociology, now serves as president of the Black Alumni at Dartmouth Association. He cautions against the assumptions that are often made when distinguishing legacy students and Black students.

“I don’t think people are careful enough when they talk about how privilege manifests itself,” Marshall said. “There’s a tendency to talk about Black students as if ‘Black student’ is synonymous with ‘poor student.’

“The question … for me is not necessarily whether or not there are more Black students than legacy students, but is the size of the Black population coming into Dartmouth where it needs to be?”

Like many of its peer institutions with histories of overwhelmingly white student bodies, Dartmouth has a long-stated goal of becoming a more inclusive campus. Janice McCabe, a Dartmouth associate professor who specializes in the sociology of education, said policies such as legacy admissions hamper diversity efforts.

“Overall at Dartmouth and other peer institutions, prioritizing legacy admissions makes it harder to achieve a diverse student body given what previous generations of classes looked like,” McCabe said.

She emphasized first-generation college student status as an important element in creating a diverse student body, as well as one that is by definition at odds with legacy admissions.

And by that measure Dartmouth has made progress. The Class of ’25 saw a record-high proportion of first-generation students, who make up 17% of admissions.

Dartmouth senior Manuel Patino is a first-generation college student from Boston. Patino said the financial advantages afforded many legacy students, such as more opportunities to prepare for standardized tests, already give them a leg up.

Patino emphasized the advantages of having parents who are familiar with the college experience.

“Growing up, that’s a very different culture compared to folks whose parents didn’t go to college and maybe had to learn what the education system meant, learn what an Ivy was,” Patino said.

“Also the ability to receive a ‘good’ high school education is undeniably more accessible for people from higher incomes, whether that’s because you’re in a better district or you go to a private school,” Patino said. “And in the past decade, colleges have gotten more difficult to get into, and more expensive.”

In line with national trends, the price tag on a Dartmouth education has increased over 30% in the past decade, and competitive colleges everywhere are getting more competitive.

“With this shift, it’s like: Do legacies really need that extra leg up?” Patino asked. “Legacy admissions is tipping the scale in one direction when it’s already tipped.”

Sophomore Grace Farr, whose parents both attended college but not Dartmouth, said the college should reconsider its policies surrounding legacy preference.

“It shouldn’t hold as much weight as it does currently in the admissions process,” Farr said.

But she acknowledged that the issue is complicated. Farr took McCabe’s course “Education and Inequality” this past winter. She described an activity in which she and her classmates acted as mock admissions officials. They had a list of students and had to select which would be admitted. She remembers one group in particular who made a strong case for choosing a legacy student, arguing the institution would engender more loyalty and perhaps rake in higher donations in the future by admitting the legacy student.

“While obviously I would love to see more Black students than white legacy students on campus, I think it’s much more complex than that,” Farr said.

Chelsea-Starr Jones, a Black junior at Dartmouth, recalled a white student she went to high school with in North Carolina who now goes to Dartmouth, too.

“She’s legacy, and I’m not. I’m like the furthest thing from legacy,” Jones said. “I feel like we both deserve to be here, and I don’t feel like her status as a legacy changed that. The result is the same because we both worked hard in high school, and we reaped the benefits of the hard work.”

Marshall said that the Black alumni association isn’t concerned with the legacy admissions process, as long as the legacy student admitted is otherwise qualified. He said that to have meaningful, productive conversations about admissions standards, the college needs to answer “second- and third-order questions.”

“What is Dartmouth doing to retain the Black students who apply but choose to go somewhere else?” Marshall said. “How do we make sure that Dartmouth is a welcoming environment to Black students, whether they are first- or third-generation students?”

As a student, Jones has worked closely with Access Dartmouth, which helps low-income admitted students who could not otherwise afford a visit to Dartmouth’s campus. Jones said that programs such as Access are important because it shows minority students, both in terms of socioeconomics and race, “that it is possible to go to a school like this and to survive and do well.”

“I am a Black woman and I am first-generation American. I exist in this body in this space, and I’m surviving and doing well,” she said. “If it’s possible for me, it’s possible for you.”

Marshall applauded the efforts of groups like Access Dartmouth.

“The issue is making sure that we have as many qualified students applying, and once they get admitted making sure they select the college as their institution of choice,” Marshall said. “Part of that is their decision, but part of it is making sure the college is a welcoming and open environment.”

Smith, the Black legacy student, said there are places where Black students who do make it to Dartmouth can go to feel more at home. She referenced the Afro-American Society and the Latin American, Latino, & Caribbean House as spaces Black students and other minority students can go to and feel more comfortable.

“You can have the conversation you’re used to, hear the language you’re used to. There just aren’t a lot of spaces that you can do that as a Black student at Dartmouth,” Smith said.

Smith noted that putting Black people in visible positions of power at the college is important to authentic diversity on campus.

“Having Black people in high positions of power — more Black trustees, more Black deans. Who’s the next president going to be? Are you actually going to live up to your commitment to diversity and inclusion and hire someone who’s not a white man?” Smith said. “When you start to look that way, you will start to be that way.”

There is also the potential that as Dartmouth becomes more diverse — 53% of the Class of ’26 are people of color — so will the pool of legacy admissions.

“I’m a legacy student, so I’m biased. Still, if your legacy pool looks like the pool of your entire student body, I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Smith said. “But it takes time to get there.”

Frances Mize is a member of the Dartmouth College Class of ’22. She can be reached fmize@vnews.com.

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