Amherst College announced on Wednesday that it would no longer give the children of alumni a boost in the admissions process, becoming one of the first highly selective colleges in the country to abandon a practice that has held back efforts to diversify the top echelons of American higher education.
With the announcement, Amherst, a private liberal arts school in Massachusetts, joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and the California Institute of Technology in the handful of highly selective schools that have opted against having so-called legacy admissions programs.
“We want to be a leader among higher education institutions, in policies and programs that support access and equity,” said Matthew L. McGann, Amherst’s dean of admissions and financial aid.
Amherst also announced that it would expand its financial aid program by about $4 million, to $71 million annually, making additional allowances for families’ expenses and adding more grants for low-income students.
Amherst acknowledged that its deep financial resources, including an endowment of nearly $3.8 billion, allowed it to make this decision. “We are doing what we’re doing because we can,” Dr. Martin said, “and because we should.”
Legacy preferences are commonly used at prestigious universities to give the children and grandchildren of alumni, who are often donors, a boost in the admissions process. The top universities have said that these admissions help encourage donations that can be used to finance scholarships for others who need them.
But legacy programs have also functioned as a barrier to diversifying college campuses. Critics say they tend to give white or wealthier students an unfair advantage, ultimately entrenching racial and socioeconomic inequities.
Recent litigation opened a window into how legacy preferences have affected admissions at Harvard, one of the most selective schools in the country. A study presented as evidence in a lawsuit over affirmative action found that students of alumni had a stark advantage: Over six admission cycles, Harvard admitted legacy applicants at a rate of 34 percent — 5.7 times higher than for applicants with no family connection to the school.
About 11 percent of the students admitted to Amherst in recent years have been children of people who graduated from the college. Still, the school has been lauded for its efforts to increase diversity.
Amherst’s admissions process is need-blind, and the college stopped offering loans as part of its financial aid packages in 2007, switching to grants instead. According to Amherst, most members of this year’s freshman class are students of color, and 18 percent are first-generation college students.
“We want to create as much opportunity for as many academically talented young people as possible, regardless of financial background or legacy status,” Biddy Martin, the president of Amherst College, said in a statement.