Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Parker J. Beverage sets aside at least two days every spring to personally call each family where a legacy applicant is about to get a letter saying he or she won't be accepted. When he is able to get through, he tries to soften the unwelcome news, and the message he leads with is just how competitive admission to Colby has become. But not all alumni take the news well.
"Admissions is about crafting a class," Beverage said. "Alumni need to realize there are lots of institutional goals that are in competition with one another."
The debate over legacy admissions has taken on national proportions. At one end of a spectrum of opinions are alumni who see legacy preferences as an entitlement, in some cases a reward for their generosity. At the other are reformers who call the practice aristocratic, un-American, even racist. In the last presidential campaign the controversy became an issue in the primary when Democrat John Edwards asked colleges to abandon legacy preferences, which he called inconsistent with 21st century American democracy.
Beverage is candid about the existence of a legacy advantage and eager for people to have a clearer understanding of what the legacy advantage is"as well as what it isn't.
A prior family connection to the College is, he says, one among a large number of special factors that, for good reasons, may make a candidate more attractive as the admissions staff builds a balanced incoming class. Legacy status is not, he says, a guarantee. As Colby's admission profile gets more competitive, so too legacies have to have stronger credentials to be accepted.
What's in it for the College? Children of alumni, and applicants who had a sibling attend Colby, are less likely to be surprised by Maine winters and are more likely to know what to expect than a non-legacy applicant. They're less likely to drop out or transfer, Beverage said.
Statistics bear that out. Averaged over five recent incoming classes, Colby's overall graduation rate was 87.5 percent (extremely high compared to national averages). From the same classes, 91.3 percent of the 115 legacies graduated in the same time frame. Legacy students who also had a sibling attend Colby graduated at a 95.4-percent rate.
Beyond that academic indicator, there's a discernible loyalty among Colby families. Director of Alumni Relations Margaret Felton Viens '77 said a disproportionate number of legacies become volunteers after they graduate. "They are very committed to Colby when their whole family shares that," she said. "There's not as much competition [from other institutions or causes] for their time and energy." Alumni Relations sponsors a dinner for legacies and their parents every year at Family Homecoming Weekend.
In admissions, part of the difficulty in sifting more than 4,000 applications each year is differentiating among lots of academically strong and talented students. So admissions personnel look for special talents and interests.
These might include a strong inclination toward an under-populated academic program, a passion for radio that might benefit WMHB, or mastery of a particular musical instrument needed in an ensemble, Beverage said. The institutional goals of recruiting more racially, ethnically, culturally, geographically, and socioeconomically diverse classes might give one candidate a slight leg up. Advantages accorded talented athletes are common throughout higher education and can be plus factors even in Division III.
Family connections fit into the same rubric of factors that might help tip the scales. Over the last ten years, 60 percent of legacies who applied were offered fall admission compared to 35 percent of the applicant pool. That's consistent with more than a dozen other selective liberal arts colleges, which admitted anywhere from 39 to 73 percent last year. Beverage explained that legacy families are more likely to know what's required at the College, so there is more self-selection up front. "They value education, enroll in good schools, are motivated and often present a strong application," he said. Fifty-four percent of admitted legacies enroll on average, compared to a yield of 34 percent in the overall pool. On average, legacies made up 5.1 percent of the last ten incoming classes.
Despite his best efforts to gently break the news of non-admission to legacy applicants, Beverage said it doesn't always go well. He's had people hang up on him and, at an institution where he worked previously, one father was so mad he returned his college diploma to the school.
Beverage encourages alumni with children interested in applying to Colby to call the Admissions Office early in the process, and he stressed the "counseling" role of admissions counselors. "It's not a black box, or a secretive operation," Beverage said. "Parts of the application are confidential, but we can discuss transcripts and activities, etc.," to give families an honest assessment in the early stages of the search.
Good communication at the front end, he said, can head off the telephone call and the severe disappointment that some families feel if their student isn't accepted.