A study by Princeton researchers of students whose SAT scores indicate that they received favored treatment for admission to select colleges has found that children of alumni are more likely to stumble academically than minority students or athletes.

For legacy students whose SAT scores were below their college’s average, the wider the gap, the worse were the grades in the freshman and sophomore years, according to research by Douglas S. Massey *78, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, and Margarita Mooney *05, a research fellow with the Office of Population Research.

“We also found that in schools with a stronger commitment to legacy admissions, the children of alumni were more likely to drop out [than non-legacies],” Massey and Mooney wrote in a paper in the February issue of the journal Social Problems.

The study is based on the experiences of about 4,000 students who enrolled in one of 28 selective public and private schools, including Princeton, in 1999.

Discussion of “affirmative action” in college admissions often focuses on preference for minority students, especially among critics of such practices, Massey said in an interview with PAW. But at least as many athletes and alumni children benefit from targeted admission programs, he said. He and Mooney wrote that they hoped their findings would “place the issue of minority affirmative action in a broader context.”

Children of alumni were least likely to receive affirmative action in admissions, the study found, and they earned the highest average GPA of the three groups during their first two years of college. Forty-eight percent of legacy students had SAT scores below the average for their school, compared to 70 percent of athletes and 77 percent of Hispanic and black students. Of students with SAT scores below their institutional average, legacies showed the smallest gap in SAT performance — 47 points below their college average, compared to a 108-point gap for athletes and minorities.

Athletes had the highest retention rates: The study found that 5 percent of all athletes, 7 percent of legacies, and 11 percent of minority students had left school by the middle of their junior year.

The study found evidence of a minority achievement gap, with the authors saying that factors such as socioeconomic status and academic preparation have a much larger effect on college academic success — as measured by grades and retention rates — than affirmative action does.

But affirmative action alone is not causing poorer academic performance for minority students, the authors said. For legacies, on the other hand, benefiting from admissions preference lowers performance.

Massey said Princeton officials have followed his research closely, and University spokeswoman Cass Cliatt ’96 confirmed that the latest findings had been reviewed. “Our data continue to show that alumni children do very well,” Cliatt said.

Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye told PAW in October that Princeton admits alumni children “at three times the rate of everyone else” and said that they are “as strong as the rest of the class.”