Legacy College Admissions Face Renewed Scrutiny: Reevaluating Affirmative Action for White Students

by Sophia Chen
college admissions

A new controversy has emerged in the realm of college admissions, focusing on a minority group that receives preferential treatment: children of alumni.

Following a Supreme Court ruling that struck down affirmative action in admissions, colleges are facing renewed pressure to eliminate legacy preferences – the practice of favoring applicants with family connections to alumni. This policy, long regarded as a privilege for the white and affluent, is now being questioned in a world where affirmative action is no longer in play.

President Joe Biden has urged colleges to reconsider the practice following the court’s decision, stating that legacy preferences “exacerbate privilege instead of fostering opportunity.” In response to the court ruling, several Democrats in Congress and Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, have called for an end to legacy preferences.

Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, pointed out on Twitter, “Let’s be clear: affirmative action still exists for white people. It’s called legacy admissions.”

For critics of legacy admissions, the ongoing debate on admissions fairness presents an opportunity to gain public support for their cause. Activists argue that if colleges genuinely aim to enroll more Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students, removing legacy preferences would be a straightforward first step to demonstrate their commitment to diversity.

Viet Nguyen, a graduate of Brown and Harvard who leads the nonprofit organization Ed Mobilizer, which has been advocating against legacy preferences since 2018, views the Supreme Court decision as a catalyst for change. Nguyen’s group is mobilizing alumni from top colleges to pressure their alma maters to abandon the practice. Their goal is to encourage graduates of 30 schools, including Harvard, the University of North Carolina, and other Ivy League institutions, to withhold donations until the policy is abolished. Efforts to eliminate legacy preferences have gained momentum, with Colorado already banning the practice at public universities in 2021, and lawmakers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York introducing similar bills. In Congress, Democrats Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon are reviving legislation that would prohibit legacy preferences at all universities that receive federal funding.

Legacy preferences have become an easy target in the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling that focused on the concept of merit in the college application process, according to Julie Park, a researcher specializing in college admissions and racial equity at the University of Maryland. Park argues that instead of gaining admission based on their own merits, legacy students are essentially “riding on their parents’ coattails.”

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called on colleges to ask themselves challenging questions and expressed concern that legacy admissions and other forms of preferential treatment “have long disadvantaged well-qualified students from diverse backgrounds by further tipping the scales against them.”

The extent and impact of legacy preferences in college admissions remain unclear. In California, where state law requires schools to disclose their use of legacy preferences, the University of Southern California reported that 14% of admitted students last year had family ties to alumni or donors, while Stanford reported a similar rate.

Harvard, which released years of records as part of the lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court, revealed that legacy students were eight times more likely to be admitted, with nearly 70% of them being white, according to researchers.

A survey conducted by Big Big News on the most selective colleges in the country last year showed that the percentage of legacy students in the freshman class ranged from 4% to 23%. At Notre Dame, USC, Cornell, and Dartmouth, legacy students outnumbered Black students.

Supporters of legacy preferences argue that the policy fosters an alumni community and encourages donations. However, a 2022 study conducted at an undisclosed Northeastern college found that while legacy students were more likely to donate, this came at the cost of diversity, as the vast majority of legacy students were white.

Some prestigious colleges have recently abandoned the practice of legacy preferences, including Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University. Amherst College, for example, observed a significant decrease in the number of legacy students in the freshman class in the year following the policy change, while achieving the highest percentage of first-year students from families without a college-going history.

Proponents of legacy preferences argue that as student bodies become more racially diverse, the benefits of legacy status will extend to students of color. However, opponents contend that white families still possess an advantage due to generations of relatives who had access to higher education.

Ivory Toldson, a professor at Howard University and the director of education, innovation, and research for the NAACP, attended Louisiana State University, which was not an option for his parents during the era of racial segregation in the South. Toldson emphasizes that discrimination is a relatively recent part of our history and highlights the irony that preferences for athletes and legacy students persist while race must be disregarded.

According to an AP-NORC poll conducted in May, few Americans believe that legacy admissions or donations should significantly influence college admissions decisions. Only 9% of respondents believed that family connections should be very important, and 18% considered it somewhat important. Similarly, 10% believed that donations to the school should be very important, while 17% considered them somewhat important.

The same poll found that the majority of Americans support affirmative action in higher education but believe that race should play a limited role. While 63% believed that the Supreme Court should not prevent colleges from considering race in admissions, 68% believed that it should not be a major factor.

Several colleges have not disclosed whether they will continue to give preference to legacy students next year, including Cornell and the University of Notre Dame.

Viet Nguyen expressed cautious optimism, believing that colleges are becoming increasingly receptive to change. He expects that, in the coming months, the reluctance will be seen in those colleges that are the last to abandon the policy, stating, “No university wants to be the last.”

This article was originally published by The Big Big News. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about college admissions, legacy preferences

What are legacy preferences in college admissions?

Legacy preferences in college admissions refer to the practice of giving preferential treatment to applicants who have family ties to alumni of a particular institution. It means that if a student’s parent, grandparent, or other close relative attended the college or university, it could potentially boost their chances of admission.

Why are legacy preferences facing renewed scrutiny?

Legacy preferences are facing renewed scrutiny due to a Supreme Court decision that struck down affirmative action in admissions. Critics argue that legacy preferences, which have historically benefited white and wealthy applicants, are no longer defensible in a world without a counterbalance in affirmative action. They believe it perpetuates privilege rather than fostering equal opportunities for all students.

What is the impact of legacy preferences on diversity?

Critics of legacy preferences argue that these policies hinder diversity efforts in college admissions. By giving preference to students with family connections, it can disproportionately benefit white applicants and limit the opportunities for underrepresented minority groups. Removing legacy preferences is seen as an important step towards creating a more equitable and inclusive admissions process.

Are there any efforts to eliminate legacy preferences?

Yes, there are ongoing efforts to eliminate legacy preferences. Activist groups, legislators, and even President Joe Biden have called for an end to the practice. Some states have already taken action by banning legacy preferences at public universities, and similar bills have been introduced in other states. Additionally, nonprofit organizations are mobilizing alumni to put pressure on colleges and universities to abandon legacy preferences.

What are the arguments in favor of legacy preferences?

Supporters of legacy preferences argue that it helps foster an alumni community and encourages donations to the institution. They believe that the practice strengthens the connection between the college and its graduates. Additionally, some argue that as student bodies become more diverse, legacy status will extend to students of color, thereby increasing diversity in the long run.

Are there colleges that have abandoned legacy preferences?

Yes, some prestigious colleges and universities have abandoned legacy preferences in recent years. Examples include Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University. These institutions have made changes to their admissions policies to prioritize merit-based considerations and promote diversity. Such shifts have resulted in a decrease in the number of legacy students admitted and an increase in the enrollment of students from underrepresented backgrounds.

More about college admissions, legacy preferences

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MusicFan88 July 1, 2023 - 8:02 pm

it’s abt time tht legacy prefernces r under scrutiny. ths system has been favoring da rich and whit for too long. we need a level playin field in college admissions so tht everyone has an equal chance to get in, regardless of their family connections.

BookLover27 July 1, 2023 - 10:37 pm

I agree with President biden, legasy prefernces r just expandng privlege insted of creatng opportunities. its not rite 2 gv special treatment 2 ppl just cuz their family went 2 a skool. we shud focus on merit and fairness in college admissions!

JohnSmith90 July 1, 2023 - 11:26 pm

legacy preferencs r such a sham! Its totlly unflr 2 give some1 an advantage just cuz their parents went 2 da same skool. Thts not how u create diversity! We need 2 end this practice ASAP!

SunflowerGirl July 2, 2023 - 3:32 am

I think legacy prefernces r unfair and discriminatory. not everyone has the luxury of havin parents who attended a prestigious skool. we need 2 create a system tht values hard work and diversity, and gives everyone a fair chance to succeed.

DreamBig123 July 2, 2023 - 4:23 am

legacy prefernces r holdin us back from achievng tru diversity in skools. we need 2 prioritize merit and equal opportunities. no one shud hv an advantage just cuz of who their parents r. its time 2 rethink the whole admissions process!


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