Runs in the family: legacies on the Hill

Colby Echo (James Burnett)

Courtesy of Claire Cahill ‘20

Over Parent’s Weekend on the Hill, it is not uncommon to find doting parents barging into the rooms of unfamiliar students proclaiming that they “totally used to live” in that very dorm. Indeed, quite a few legacy students attend the College. These students — who have at least one relative who graduated from the college — often forge deep and meaningful connections with Colby before they even applied.

Because of the value that these connections bring, Colby’s admissions office considers familial connections as part of their review process for admission to the college. As Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Matthew T. Proto explains, these connections are considered “as part of an applicant’s personal context.” However, Proto states that legacy is never a “defining or deciding factor in admissions decisions.” Proto also adds that the school seeks students “from all backgrounds with different experiences” as long as they will “contribute to the Colby community in meaningful ways.”

Dean Karlene Burrell-McRae `94 elaborates on specific experiences that legacy students bring to Colby. She explains that “our legacy students have more familiarity with the college as family members have often shared stories and experiences that made them fond of their college experience. It is likely they heard of faculty and staff members who have impacted their academic, intellectual and life journeys.” Burrell-McRae hopes that the legacy students at Colby share their knowledge and help others navigate the College when possible.

One legacy student, Hailey Reed `20, said she never felt a strong familial connection to Colby per se, but it helped her “shape [her] idea of what college is when I started to look for where I wanted to go.” Both her father `85 and grandfather `56 were Mules, so Reed “really associated college with a small liberal arts school with brick buildings in New England.”

Unlike some legacy students, Reed did not choose Colby specifically to follow in her father’s footsteps. Rather, she explains that she saw “how big of a role Colby played and still plays in my dad’s life, and that helped me contextualize the school outside of what you can get on a tour. I saw from my dad and his friends how much of a connection they felt to the school, and I was looking for a school that you didn’t just go to for four years and leave. I wanted a school that felt like a community even after you left.” Fascinatingly, Reed thinks her family’s connection to Colby pushed her brother in the opposite direction. He chose to attend the University of Miami, an experience dissimilar to that of a small liberal arts college.

Senior Jenna Isaacson `18, on the other hand, placed more importance in the continuation of her family’s rich tradition at Colby. “I really liked the idea of being third generation and the fourth person in my family to come to Colby, since the school has been so important to my family for many decades” Isaacson said in an interview with the Echo. “I grew up hearing stories about their time at Colby and it’s exciting that I now get to have my own experience here but I definitely feel like I share a special connection with my family because of Colby.

Clearly, legacy students like Reed and Isaacson bring unique and valuable experiences to Colby. Despite this, considering legacy when evaluating a student for admission is fairly controversial. In fact, the University of Georgia — which is the oldest public school in the United States — ended legacy as a factor in their admissions process a few years ago. A number of other colleges and universities around the country have also discontinued this practice.

One study in the Chronicle of Higher Education conducted in 2007 by Harvard University across 30 “elite” colleges found that applicants with any type of legacy were admitted to colleges at a 23.3 percent higher rate compared to students without legacy. For students with parents who attended an elite college, (a primary legacy), this rate skyrocketed to 45.1 percent. Many, however, argue that cases of primary legacy are fairly rare.

Of the 290,000 applications studied in the Chronicle of Higher Education, only six percent held any legacy status at all, let alone direct parental legacy. Because of how few students are legacy, the perceived “advantage” those students hold does not greatly affect the chances of non-legacy students in getting accepted.

Interestingly enough, the study also found a positive correlation between SAT scores and legacy status-that is, in general, as an applicant’s familial connection to a school intensified, so too did their SAT scores. And although it is impossible to determine specifically what has caused this correlation, it points to the fact that while legacies may have a perceived advantage in the admissions process, they generally are just as qualified (if not more so) for acceptance to the school as non-legacies.

Ultimately, regardless of whether they are legacy or not, Burrell-McRae hopes that all students take advantage of the resources at Colby — both academic and co-curricular — in order to “challenge themselves to grow and leave with a renewed sense to be change agents.”

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