college admissions, a legacy is an applicant who is related
to alumni. The term specifically refers to children of wealthy alumni
who have donated substantial sums of money to the school (members of the
Harvard or Yale or Duke families, for example). It can also refer
to children of people who are just plain wealthy--Bill Gates's kid would
be a legacy applicant to just about any university, even though ol' Bill
himself never graduated from Harvard (sometimes candidates like these are
called "development admits" rather than "legacy admits").
Typically, these applicants receive special consideration during the
admissions process, and may be admitted ahead of equally qualified
applicants whose parents don't have such deep pockets. Once
admitted, these students may receive perks throughout their careers (much
like college athletes), including better parking
spaces, better housing, and some protection against expulsion or flunking out.
Many people believe this policy to be as rabidly unfair as affirmative
action. Maybe so, but it's worth realizing that the
school--and its students--may benefit from the implementation of this
policy. Let's say an underqualified legacy applies to your school. You
have a choice: You can choose aristocracy over meritocracy, denying a
space to a somewhat more qualified student, and the legacy's daddy will buy the school a brand-new library to replace the
crumbling concrete monolith that was built back in the 60's. Or you can
reject him, choosing meritocracy over aristocracy, and you'll have a
slightly more qualified student and no new library. Which decision is
best for the school and its students overall?
Legacy admits are often assumed to be lazy, underqualified dolts who
were born with silver spoon in hand and have ridden on their families'
coattails ever since. All generalizations are wrong, though: A
college friend of mine was a legacy admit (his last name appears on two
buildings, a quad, and an auditorium) but he distinguished himself by
graduating magna cum laude in engineering. No fool he.