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Capital Conversion and Accumulation: A Social Portrait of Legacies at an Elite University

Abstract

Legacies, or students with a family member who graduated from the same college or university, have been the source of much debate. We add to the existing literature by providing a detailed empirical portrait of legacies at a private, selective university across the college years. We examine how legacies are distinctive in their admissions profiles, within-college achievement and post-graduation plans, using data from a panel study of students attending Duke University. We find that legacies enter college with an abundance of economic, cultural and social capital, but also have lower levels of human capital compared to other students with college graduate parents. Due to this human capital deficit, legacies have lower grades in the first college year, but show little academic underperformance in subsequent semesters. Additionally, legacies are less likely to plan to be a medical doctor or engineer and have somewhat lower degree aspirations than other students.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Duke University Admissions considers legacies as applicants with parents, grandparents or siblings who have attended or are attending Duke. During the application process, legacies’ applications are subject to an additional round of review. While legacy status is just one of many factors are taken into consideration by reviewers, legacies have on average double the chances of admission compared to non-legacy applicants (Dagger 2006).

  2. Overall response rates to the in-college waves, administered by mail and web (senior year only), were 71% for the first year, 65% for the second year and 59% for the senior year.

  3. In the comparisons included in Tables 2, 3, 6 and 7, significant between-group differences (p < .05) are determined from one-way ANOVA for continuous and ordinal dependent variables, and chi-squared tests for dichotomous and categorical variables.

  4. For the actual placement of respondents in racial ethnic categories, Census-type questions were used that measure first whether or not the respondent is Hispanic and then elicit a racial category. Virtually all “Hispanic” respondents also reported their race as white, so this group was classified as Latino. Other groups were placed on the basis of this question, which includes bi- and multi-racial options.

  5. Espenshade and Chung (2005, p. 301) report that 76% of legacies are white in the 1997 cohort of the National Study of College Experience,. Howell and Turner (2004, p. 341) show that 87% of legacies are white in a recent cohort at the University of Virginia. In comparison, 84% of legacies are white in the CLL.

  6. About 51% of legacies have at least one parent with an advanced degree, and about 11% of legacies have two parents with an advanced degree. To consider whether this could account for similarities between legacies and students with advanced degree parents, we decompose legacies into two groups. Compared to other legacies, legacies with at least one advanced degree parent are more likely to have a parent with a high-grade professional occupation (87.9% vs. 66.5%), expect greater family contribution for expenses (79.2% vs. 67.0%), participate in more cultural activities (17.2 vs. 16.3) and have more educational resources in the home (9.65 vs. 9.28). No other variables included in Tables 2 and 3 or 4 show significant differences between the legacy groups.

  7. In results not shown, we examine differences on Admissions Committee ratings, collected from institutional files. Legacies had the lowest scores of the four student groups for achievement and personal qualities, and lower scores than other students with college graduate parents for curriculum, essay, test scores, and recommendation letters.

  8. The CLL does not include information about athletes who were recruited during the admissions process. Other items ask students about extracurricular participation, including intercollegiate athletics, in each college year. In the first year, about 56% of intercollegiate athletes had SAT scores below their class mean.

  9. In results not shown, we examine other measures of time use during the college years. There are no significant differences between the four student groups in the time spent each week in class, doing homework or studying. Students spend about 24 h/week in class or studying during the first year, and about 20 h by the fourth year. During the first year, legacies spend significantly more time socializing with friends and partying than other students. Legacies spend about 17.1 h/week socializing and partying during the first year, compared to about 16.2 h for other students with college graduate parents and about 12.6 h for students with no degree parents.

  10. About 46% of legacies reported an interest in receiving financial aid in their college admissions form, compared to nearly half of students with advanced degree parents, about 59% of students with college degree parents and about two-thirds of students with no degree parents. While there is no absolute family income threshold to determine Pell Grant eligibility (other factors include assets, household size and number of family members in college), about 73% of students at private universities during the 2003–2004 academic year with a pre-college family income of less than $35,000/year received a Pell Grant (Berkner et al. 2005).

  11. Although not a major focus of our study, as noted by one reviewer it is noteworthy that students with no degree parents appear undeterred by this potential obstacle.  By the end of college, students with no degree parents have semester GPAs that are converging to the level of other groups, are likely to plan to attend graduate school and have high final degree aspirations.

  12. While admissions preferences for legacies are often justified by private institutions’ reliance on alumni support, this argument can be less than persuasive considering the large and growing endowments enjoyed by many elite colleges and universities (Karabel 2005, pp. 550–551). In 2007, Duke University’s endowment was valued at about $5.9 billion, is less than one-fifth the market value of Harvard’s ($34.6 billion) and about one-quarter the size of Yale’s ($22.5 billion), although over 11 times greater than the average for national postsecondary institutions ($0.5 billion) (National Association of College and University Business Officers 2007).

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Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge grants supporting this research from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Duke University. The authors bear sole responsibility for the contents of this article. An earlier version was presented at the 2008 American Sociological Association Annual Meetings. We would like to thank Sarah Mustillo for assistance with the data, and the Editor and anonymous reviewers for helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Nathan D. Martin.

Appendix

Appendix

Dropout Bias, Non-Response Bias and Missing Data

Registrar’s Office data provided enrollment information for students in each survey year. Non-enrollment might occur for multiple reasons including academic or disciplinary probation, medical or personal leave of absence, dismissal, transfer or involuntary withdrawal. At the end of the first year, fewer than 1% (n = 12) of students were not enrolled, and about 5% (n = 81) of students were not enrolled at the end of the senior year. Tests for differences were conducted using admissions file information of those enrolled versus not enrolled at the end of each survey year. The test variables included racial ethnic group, SAT verbal and mathematics score, high school rank, admission committee rating, parental education, financial aid applicant, type of high school attended and citizenship. Only two differences were significant (p < .05). After the first year, dropouts had higher SAT-verbal scores, and after the senior year, dropouts had a lower admissions rating.

Similar tests were conducted comparing respondents and non-respondents for each wave, using the same variables as above plus major field, legacy admission status, and previous semester GPA. Most variables reveal no significant or only sporadic differences. Other variables show differences that are more systematic. Non-respondents at each wave have lower SAT scores (mathematics: 9–15 points; verbal: 18–22 points), are less likely to be from a public high school and somewhat more likely to be from a private (non-religious) high school, and have lower grades in the previous semester by about one-quarter of a letter grade. Non-respondents have slightly higher educated parents at waves one and three.

Mean imputation was used for variables with less than 5% missing (Cohen et al. 2003). For SAT scores (10.8% missing), missing values were replaced with a regression predicted score using ACT scores, high school rank and admissions committee ratings. A prediction equation explained more than 60% of the variance in SAT scores, suggesting that minimal bias will be present when using the imputed variable (Landerman et al. 1997).

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Martin, N.D., Spenner, K.I. Capital Conversion and Accumulation: A Social Portrait of Legacies at an Elite University. Res High Educ 50, 623–648 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-009-9136-9

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Keywords

  • Academic achievement
  • College admissions
  • Cultural capital
  • Human capital
  • Postsecondary education