For Engineering Students, It Helps to Have an Alumni Parent

The fairness of admissions to college engineering programs is being called into question by schools' policies of legacy admissions.
Marcia Wendorf

Getting in to an elite U.S. university to study engineering has never been easy. Besides great grades and stellar SAT scores, you might also need a parent who attended your school of choice. Or else, you might need parents with very deep pockets.

Last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced a college admission scheme that caught up wealthy parents, including the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. While this scandal might be a wake up call for some, the fact is that the U.S. college admission process hasn't been a meritocracy for a long, long time.

The Admission Battle Royale of Elite College Admission

It's never been easy to get in to an elite school, but 2018 showed that it's never been harder. According to an April 2018 article in "The Harvard Crimson" student newspaper, 2018 set a record low for admission rates at schools with the top-rated engineering programs, such as MIT and Stanford, and at all the Ivy League schools with the exception of Yale. 2018 was also the first year that Harvard's admission rate dropped below 5%, while Stanford's admission rate was a truly dismal 4.3%.

Ivy League Admissions in 2018 and 2017:

  • Harvard - 4.6%, 5.2%
  • Yale - 6.3%, 6.9%
  • Princeton - 5.5%, 6.1%
  • Columbia - 5.5%, 5.8%
  • U. of Pennsylvania - 8.4%, 9.2%
  • Brown - 7.2%, 8.3%
  • Dartmouth - 8.7%, 10.4%
  • Cornell - 10.3%, 12.5%

Born With An Elite Advantage

Historically, the children of a parent who attended an elite school, especially as an undergraduate, have a much better chance of getting into that school. This is called a legacy admission.

"First class, that's what's wrong. It used to be a better meal, now it's a better life." — Dorothy Boyd, "Jerry Maguire"

Schools value legacy applicants for both economic and community-building reasons, the assumption being that alumni parents will stay more involved with a school, such as going to reunions and serving on committees, and they will also donate more money to that school. New legacy admissions will themselves go on to become active alumni due to their family's connection to the school.

2018 survey by Inside Higher Ed found that 42% of private institutions and 6% of public institutions consider legacy status as a factor in their admissions. Being a legacy is often referred to as being "a push", "a plus", or "tie-breaker" so that if a candidate is on the bubble, being a legacy can push him or her over the edge. A Harvard admissions officer has been pithily quoted as saying, "Legacy can cure the sick, but it can't raise the dead."

In June, 2018, a lawsuit filed against Harvard University stated that over 33% of legacy applicants were admitted to the Classes of 2014 through 2019. That is is over five times the acceptance rate for non-legacy students. "The Harvard Crimson" newspaper noted in a June 20, 2018 article that in the Classes of 2007 through 2016, the number of accepted legacy students was greater than the number of accepted first-generation students.

Most Popular

Some of the top engineering programs are at schools that are the hardest to get in to. The U.S. News and World Report ranks engineering schools as follows, with the elite schools starred:

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology *
  2. Stanford University *
  3. University of California-Berkeley *
  4. California Institute of Technology *
  5. Georgia Institute of Technology
  6. University of Illinois — Urbana-Champaign
  7. Carnegie Mellon University *
  8. Cornell University *
  9. University of Michigan
  10. Purdue University
  11. University of Texas
  12. Princeton University *
  13. Northwestern University *
  14. University of Wisconsin
  15. Texas A&M University
  16. Virgina Tech
  17. Johns Hopkins University *
  18. Rice University *
  19. Columbia University *
  20. Duke University *

According to a 2013 article in the "Stanford Magazine", number two-ranked Stanford University accepts legacy students at three times the rate of other applicants. The Cornell Daily Sun" newspaper puts number eight-ranked Cornell University's legacy admissions at 15% of its entire undergraduate population.

At 12th-ranked Princeton University, a 2015 article in the "Daily Princetonian" newspaper says that, "The acceptance rate for alumni children and step-children has wavered without a specific trend between 35 and 42 percent since the Class of 2000, with the Class of 2018 hitting a record low of 30.8 percent ..." Compare that with Princeton's overall 2018 admission rate of 5.5%!

 At the number one-ranked Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), things are a bit different. Its admission office states: "one of the things that makes MIT special is the fact that it is meritocratic to its cultural core. In fact, I think if we tried to move towards legacy admissions we might face an alumni revolt. There is only one way into (and out of) MIT, and that's the hard way. The people here value that."

Besides MIT, number four-ranked Caltech, Oxford, Cambridge and number three-ranked University of California, Berkeley explicitly forbid legacy preference in their admissions decisions.

Engineer Athletes

For engineering students who don't have an alumni parent, another avenue to admission to an elite college is participation in one of the sports that these sorts of colleges seem to love: rowing crew, golf, water polo and fencing. However, each of these sports has a high financial barrier to entry for a teenager.

"We row crew." — The Winklevoss Twins, "The Social Network"

According to the Academy of Fencing Masters blog, the percentage of high school students who go from competing in a sport in high school to playing that sport in college is just 7.6% for boys and 7.9% for girls. But for fencers, it is a whopping 29.6% for boys and 38.2% for girls.

The following U.S. schools have NCAA Division 1 fencing teams, with the elite schools starred:

  • Boston College
  • Brown University *
  • Cleveland State University
  • Columbia University (including Barnard College) *
  • Cornell University (women only) *
  • Duke University *
  • Fairleigh Dickinson University (women only)
  • Harvard University
  • Lafayette College
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology
  • Northwestern University (women only) *
  • Ohio State University
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Princeton University *
  • Sacred Heart University
  • St. Johns University
  • Stanford University *
  • Temple University (women only)
  • United States Air Force Academy
  • University of Detroit Mercy
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Notre Dame
  • University of Pennsylvania *
  • University of the Incarnate Word
  • Wagner College (women only)
  • Yale University *

So, what do you do if you want to study engineering at an elite university, neither of your parents attended one of these schools, and you don't know your way around a sword? Another way of getting into an elite school is to have your parents make a multi-million dollar donation to that school. That's what U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, did. Kushner, who was a less than stellar high school student, was admitted to Harvard University shortly after his real estate developer father, Charles, made a $2.5 million donation to the school.

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