Public and legislative opinion have turned sharply against legacy admissions, a long-standing policy that gives children of alumni and donors an edge in gaining entry to many of the nation’s most selective colleges.
Several elite institutions have recently abandoned the practice, and some experts predict it will vanish entirely in the near future.
Two of the nation’s most prestigious liberal arts schools, Wesleyan University and Occidental College, eliminated legacy admissions this summer, along with the public flagship University of Minnesota. Their names join a growing list of elite institutions that have rejected legacy preferences, including Amherst and Pomona colleges and Johns Hopkins University.
More than 100 colleges and universities in all have ended legacy preferences since 2015, according to a report from the nonprofit Education Reform Now.
The movement took on new urgency this summer, following the Supreme Court ruling in June that effectively struck down affirmative action, barring schools from considering race in admissions.
Affirmative action had long served as a counterbalance to legacy preferences, which tend to favor applicants who are white and wealthy. As schools explored how to maintain their commitment to diversity after the ruling, many saw legacy admissions as a clear area to target.
On the day of the high court ruling, President Biden took aim at the legacy system, directing the Education Department to study “practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.”
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle voiced support. Sen. Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican, urged academia to abandon legacy admissions. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat, derided legacy preferences as “affirmative action for the privileged.”
States have taken matters into their own hands. California enacted a law in 2020 that requires colleges to submit potentially embarrassing annual reports on legacy admissions. In 2021, Colorado became the first state to ban legacy preferences in public universities. Similar bills have emerged in New York and Connecticut.
A new bill in Massachusetts takes a novel approach: It would require any college that favors legacies to pay a “public service fee,” with the proceeds funding community colleges.
This summer, Democrats in Congress revived a 2022 bill that would bar colleges receiving federal funds from favoring legacies or donors. Separately, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into whether Harvard’s legacy preferences discriminate against Black, Hispanic and Asian American applicants.
A complaint filed against Harvard to the Education Department by three Black and Latino groups claims nearly 70 percent of applicants to the school who are related to wealthy donors and 70 percent who are related to alumni are white.
Recent surveys suggest that most of the American public opposes legacy preferences. In an August poll of 1,202 likely voters, the polling firm Data for Progress found that 68 percent of them would support a ban on legacy admissions. Here, too, support crossed party lines.
Public enthusiasm for legacy preferences has never run high, admissions experts say.
“The public was always opposed,” said Richard Kahlenberg, nonresident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and editor of a book on legacy preferences. “They always thought it was offensive that ancestry should matter in who gets into a selective college.”
“We fought a revolution in this country against the idea of an inherited aristocracy. It’s deeply un-American to discriminate based on ancestry. And at the same time, ironically, these legacy preferences are almost uniquely American.”
Legacy preferences date back generations. And even now, after dozens of selective schools have backed away from legacy admissions, most of the nation’s top institutions favor the children of alumni and donors.
An analysis of the 100 highest-ranked colleges by Forbes magazine found that 78 percent of private institutions gave at least some consideration to legacy, compared with 15 percent of public colleges.
Legacy status can deliver a potent boost to an applicant’s chances at some of the nation’s most competitive colleges.
A landmark study, released this summer, found that legacy applicants from wealthy families were five times more likely than other students to gain admission to an Ivy League or Ivy-caliber school. Legacy applicants from less prosperous families were three times as likely to gain entry.
Applicants to elite schools are desperate for any advantage. The overall admission rate in 2022 was 9 percent at the University of Pennsylvania, 8 percent at Duke, 7 percent at the University of Chicago and 5 percent at Stanford and Harvard, according to a CBS News analysis.
“You’re talking about one of the best tickets to upward mobility in human history, OK?” said Holden Thorp, a chemist and former chancellor of the University of North Carolina. “So there’s a lot of debate about who deserves that ticket and who doesn’t.”
The prospect of a legacy preference drives millions of dollars of charitable donations to selective universities from alumni with children approaching college age.
Schools that take away that advantage have to contend with backlash from some former students.
“We found that there were some alums who did not like the decision and expressed displeasure, and others who were really excited by the decision,” said Matt McGann, dean of admission and financial aid for Amherst College, which abandoned legacy admissions in 2021.
After Amherst banned the practice, legacy admissions fell from 11 percent of the incoming class to 6 percent in the next school year. McGann said the school was also able to increase its number of first-generation students in that time.
“Other alums were not as happy, and I think it was not so much about the decision itself, but, maybe, did it signal any lessening of our commitment to building a lifelong community?” he added. “And that was not what the decision was about, but I can understand how someone might feel that way. And having the lifelong community built through our alum group is really important to us.”
For college presidents and trustees, legacy preferences are an inconvenient truth. Several institutions contacted by The Hill for this story declined interview requests.
“If you gave a truthful answer,” Thorp said, “I would say most college presidents say they’re uncomfortable with it, and there’s no moral argument for doing it.”
Yet, college administrators have embraced legacy preferences for decades. Children of alumni and donors often pay the full price of admission, or close to it. If offered preferential admission, they’re strongly motivated to accept. Legacy admissions build a multigenerational bond between family and college.
“Colleges in the United States, they function kind of like families. You put the bumper sticker on your car,” said Mitchell Stevens, an organizational sociologist at Stanford. “It’s not just about donations. It’s about identity, and perpetuating an identity across generations.”
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