University Applications

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why, If At All, Is It Unethical For Universities To Prioritise Applicants Related To Their Alumni?

This essay was the runner up in the undergraduate category of the 7th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Written by University of Oxford student Tanae Rao


Most notably in the United States, some prestigious universities[1] consider whether or not a student is closely related to one or more alumni when evaluating her application. In an increasingly competitive university admissions landscape, having legacy status increases an applicant’s probability of being admitted to such a great extent that over a third of Harvard’s undergraduate class of 2022 is composed of legacy students.[2] This has led the New York Times Editorial Board to describe the practice as “anti-meritocratic” and “an engine of inequity”.[3]

Considering the alma mater of a student’s relatives when evaluating their university application seems to be wrong, or unfair, in some way. But what is the central aspect of the legacy admissions policy justifying this reaction? I consider three possible answers to this question. Firstly, I reject the academic qualification view, whereby universities should only consider if applicants will be able to meet academic requirements when making admissions decisions. This view does not reflect the actual state of university admissions today, where the number of qualified applicants often far exceeds the number of available seats. I then reject the popular view whereby universities should minimise their consideration of factors outside of the applicant’s control. Though this criterion appears to meet many of our intuitions regarding university admissions, I argue that it is too restrictive, preventing reasonable factors from being considered by universities. Finally, I propose a consequentialist view, whereby admissions decisions should be based on their expected consequences to admitted students and society as a whole. This view—I contend—is a plausible explanation of why legacy admissions should be discontinued, contingent on some evaluative questions. Continue reading