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Admissions staff, students reflect on Notre Dame tradition of legacy student admissions

and | Friday, April 26, 2019

Since its founding in 1842, Notre Dame has placed a strong emphasis on tradition and the “Notre Dame family.” But for many students, the Notre Dame family is not just figurative, but literal.

Don Bishop, associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment, said legacy students — or students who have at least one parent who graduated from the University — tend to get accepted at a higher rate than students whose parents did not attend Notre Dame. The reason for this disparity, he said, is legacy students, whose parents tend to be more educated, are more qualified for admission. Bishop said in 2018, the legacy student admit rate was 36%, as opposed to the general admissions rate of 15% to 16%.

“That’s where the alumni children, one, come from better-educated households … They tend to be more economically successful, so they’ve had more resources,” he said. “The families tend to promote academics and achievement more than most households. All that’s kind of the culture of Notre Dame, and we’re proud of that.”

Anna Mason | The Observer

Bishop said 23.6% of the makeup of class of 2022 is legacy students, as compared to 11.6% across the eight Ivy League schools — Brown University, Harvard University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Princeton University, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania. The “Catholic nature” of Notre Dame is the main reason behind these statistics, Bishop said.

“We have more children in our households,” he said. “Notre Dame is not 100% Catholic, but the Catholic nature of Notre Dame [means] our households have more children. The national average household has 1.9 children, if a household has children. Our average household of our alumni [children] is about 3.3 to 3.5 [average], depending on the year … If we’re double the Ivies, it’s because we have more kids.” 

In addition, legacy students commit to attend Notre Dame at a much higher rate than non-legacies, Bishop said.

“The fact that 78% enroll compared to about 53% of all other admits — [they] wanted to be here, [they] saw the value of Notre Dame,” Bishop said. “So I think there is a higher degree of interest by alumni children of Notre Dame then even the other top schools, but I think statistically we have about the same number of outcomes, our alumni just have more children that apply.”

Additionally, during the admissions process, Bishop said legacy students’ applications — as well as other groups with the “highest priority” — are looked at more than once.

“We make sure [legacy students’ applications] get read multiple times … we always make sure the alumni children have multiple reads, it’s a courtesy to make sure — have we looked at everything as carefully as we can?” Bishop said. “But, once they’ve been read multiple times, they still go through the same committee process as everyone else.”

Bishop added low-income students are another group whose applications are read multiple times.

“We want to have multiple readers for the highest priority groups,” he said.

According to a 2014 article published in Notre Dame Magazine, the University committed to sustaining a steady legacy presence — about 20% to 25% of all students.

“There are about 1,000 kids walking this campus today who are alumni kids who, if we did not have this commitment to the alumni, would not be here — about 250 per class,” Bishop said in the article.

Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow and director for K-12 equity at the Century Foundation, said the process of considering where the parent of a student has graduated from is counterintuitive to the values of independence and equality upon which the United States was founded.

“I think it’s basically un-American,” Kahlenberg said. “We fought our Revolutionary War against the British based on the idea that we were going to create a different type of society moving away from aristocracy in which lineage and parentage mattered a great deal and so the idea that universities whose researchers are spending a lot of time trying to reduce inequality, are themselves engaging in a form of discrimination based on ancestry is anachronistic and contrary to basic American values.”

Not only are legacy admissions wrong on principle, but the process of admitting children of alumni deprives other students of opportunities, Kahlenberg said.

“I would say it harms the university in a couple of ways,” Kahlenberg said. “One is, it’s admitting students through a preference who wouldn’t otherwise be there, and given that the preference is in my view unjustified, it’s going to harm the equality of the education provided. I think it sends a powerful message about what a university values. Legacy students are less likely to be students of color, less likely to be low-income. By saying if your parents were members of the club, you’re more likely to be welcomed, the university is sending a message that undermines its moral standing.”

Bishop said in addition to looking at test scores, grades and essays, Notre Dame also considers how well a prospective student aligns with the mission and spirit of the University.

“If there are students that, in their essays, in the school recommendations, in their activities talk about service to others, along with tremendous intellectual academic talent and creativity, we’re also requiring that we see some balance, and that balance, often with the Notre Dame mission, is service to others, kind of a self-awareness and a desire to help others — not just yourself,“ he said. “Alumni children were brought up in that kind of environment. A lot of our graduates have lived that mission.”

Kahlenberg said he disagreed with this “mission match,” saying legacy students are not the only group who can contribute positively to the values of Notre Dame.

“It’s not difficult for a prospective student to read about Notre Dame on its website, read its mission statement and then decide whether that’s attractive,” he said. “So I don’t think that there’s some special insight that’s unavailable to non-legacies regarding the mission of the University.”

Tommy Clare, a junior computer science major, was a “Notre Dame baby,” and credits his decision to come to the University to the amount of exposure he had during his childhood.

“Both my parents actually were the same year [at Notre Dame] … they both graduated in ‘92,” Clare said. “When we came along, we were obviously Notre Dame babies from the start. … I would say that by far Notre Dame was the only college exposure I had growing up. … Notre Dame always kind of had that edge — I’d say because of the legacy [factor]. To be fair, I still would have ended up here, but probably with a longer decision process.”

Junior Tommy Krug is a fourth-generation Notre Dame student. His family has a long history of sending people to the University, he said.

“My great grandfather was at Notre Dame in 1918,” Krug said. “He actually had Knute Rockne as a chemistry teacher. Two of his sons went to Notre Dame in the ‘50s, one of them was my grandfather. Three of my dad’s six siblings went to Notre Dame, including my dad … I’ve had cousins go as well, and had one sister go and one sister rejected.”

Krug said he was always “that kid who wanted to go to Notre Dame in kindergarten,” but his plans did not seem certain when his sister was rejected from the University.

“I kind of hit a snag when my sister was rejected when I was a freshman in high school,” Krug said. “My sister was the only one out of the three of us who applied to Notre Dame who was a valedictorian, and she was rejected.”

Krug said he does believe legacy students are a valuable part of the University, but the administration should be careful to keep the student body diverse.

“To a point, it’s nice to have students who are like unpaid tour guides and just know everything. … I think it does add something to the student body of the school, to have that legacy tie,” Krug said. “But to the degree that they are carried out, I don’t know how to quantify what’s appropriate. … It’s like when you’re making something in a pot when you’re trying to cook something, you want a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

Bishop said in his experience, legacy students were helpful in helping him adapt to the traditions of Notre Dame.

“I think being around legacy students helped me appreciate Notre Dame more quickly. … I would say legacy students help the rest of us kind of ramp up more quickly on understanding the traditions and the nature of the mission of Notre Dame,” Bishop said. “So in that way, I think legacies are helpful to everyone.”

Ultimately, Kahlenberg said, though he disagrees with factoring legacy status into admissions, he is grateful the University is transparent about its policy.

“There are some universities that are somewhat embarrassed by their legacy preference policy, who kind of try to camouflage what they’re doing,” he said. “It seems like Notre Dame, to its credit, is at least honest that they’re engaged in legacy preferences. They don’t shy away from that.”

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About Claire Rafford

Claire is a senior from Tempe, Arizona majoring in English and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Business-Economics. She peaked when her team won the Battle of the Books state championship in 2011.

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About Mariah Rush

Mariah is a senior majoring in American Studies and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is from the great city of South Bend, and was the Managing Editor of The Observer for the 2020-2021 school year. You can find her always on Twitter at @mariahfrush.

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