Elite college admissions: A preference for athletes and legacy students

Historic photo of the USC men's relay team training

Members of the University of Southern California men’s relay team, 1934. (The Happy Rower/Flickr)
How much of an edge do athletes and the children of alumni have in elite college admissions? How do they compare with other students in terms of SAT scores and other academic metrics? We’ve pulled together research that examines these questions and others.


Operation Varsity Blues, the college admissions bribery scandal involving fake test scores and athletic credentials, has raised questions about how much of an edge student athletes and wealthy students already have in the admissions process at the country’s most prestigious schools.

How much better are an athlete’s chances of getting into a top university compared with other students? What about “legacy” students, whose family members are alumni?

Multiple research studies over the years have found that admissions officers give both groups preferential treatment. But estimates vary in terms of how much of an advantage they enjoy. For example, a study of admission rates at 30 top-tier schools found that the odds of admission for legacy students were as high as 15.69 times the odds of admission for other students. Another study, which focuses on three private research universities, found that the edge given to athletes is roughly equivalent to an extra 200 points on the SAT and that it’s worth an additional 160 points for legacy students. Meanwhile, research offers a mixed view of the academic qualifications of these two groups of students. Some studies of elite institutions indicate that athletes and legacies have lower test scores or fall short in other areas when compared to student bodies as a whole.





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