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US Education Secretary Explores Alternatives to Curb Legacy Admissions in Colleges

by Chloe Baker
10 comments
Legacy Admissions

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, under President Joe Biden’s administration, indicated his willingness to employ a range of mechanisms—including federal funding—to dissuade higher education institutions from prioritizing admissions for children of alumni and financial benefactors.

In a conversation with The Big Big News, Secretary Cardona expressed the need to reexamine the system of legacy admissions to enhance campus diversity, particularly in light of the recent Supreme Court verdict that ruled against affirmative action. Extending beyond his earlier statements, Cardona revealed a readiness to adopt more forceful measures to inhibit such admissions practices.

“I am committed to leveraging any available resources as Secretary of Education to make sure that, especially when distributing financial aid and loans, we are doing so for educational institutions that offer true value,” Cardona stated on Wednesday. The statement was made in response to a question about the potential use of federal funds to either incentivize or penalize colleges over legacy admissions.

The topic of legacy admissions—historically benefiting wealthy, predominantly white applicants at elite institutions—has gained renewed attention following the Supreme Court’s decision in June that prohibits the consideration of an applicant’s race during admissions. Critics argue that, with the abolition of affirmative action and the continued allowance of legacy admissions, the system has become even more skewed against students of color.

Although Secretary Cardona did not specify his available options, it is worth noting that the federal government administers significant amounts of money allocated for student financial aid and research grants to colleges. Additionally, the Education Department has the authority to levy fines for civil rights violations, including racial discrimination. An inquiry has recently been initiated at Harvard University following a federal complaint alleging that the university’s legacy admissions equate to racial discrimination.

While a few smaller institutions have ceased legacy admissions in the aftermath of the affirmative action ruling, there has been no evident shift in policy among the nation’s premier universities.

Defenders of legacy admissions argue that it fosters community and enhances fundraising. They contend that as campuses diversify, the benefits of legacy admissions are increasingly shared by families of color.

Cardona, a graduate of Central Connecticut State University and a former technical high school attendee, has joined civil rights organizations and Democratic lawmakers in opposing legacy admissions. “The capability to enter a college should not be determined by your surname or your ability to financially contribute,” he observed. However, he stopped short of endorsing the outright bans proposed by some Democratic legislators, viewing it as an issue of local autonomy for the universities.

In the absence of decisive action, Cardona warned of the potential repercussions, drawing parallels with California, where the discontinuation of affirmative action in 1996 led to a significant drop in enrollment of Black and Latino students at top colleges—a trend that has not reversed.

“If we follow California’s footsteps in repealing affirmative action, how can we maintain our competitive edge against nations like China?” he asked. “This isn’t just about fostering diverse educational settings; it’s a matter of national strength.”

Campaigners have also urged the Education Department to commence collecting data on the demographics and numbers of legacy students.

Deputy Director James Murphy of Education Reform Now, a non-profit think tank, stated, “I was optimistic that more colleges would voluntarily abandon legacy admissions. Persistent scrutiny and pressure need to be maintained.”

In related matters:

— During the interview, Cardona stressed the importance of educating students on the enduring impacts of slavery. He cautioned against concealing the harsh realities and current ramifications, which include lingering effects from unjust housing and lending policies.

— He advocated for keeping schools operational even in the event of a new surge in COVID-19 cases, expressing concerns over government overreach that could result in school closures.

— Cardona refrained from commenting on the specifics of the administration’s forthcoming student loan forgiveness proposal but assured that the issue is being addressed expeditiously due to the urgency felt by borrowers.


The Big Big News education division is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP maintains sole responsibility for all content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Legacy Admissions

What is Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s stance on legacy admissions in colleges?

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has indicated a willingness to employ various mechanisms, including the use of federal funds, to dissuade colleges from giving admissions preference to children of alumni and donors. He believes such practices should be reevaluated to enhance campus diversity.

What prompted the renewed focus on legacy admissions?

The issue of legacy admissions has gained renewed attention following the recent Supreme Court decision that ruled against affirmative action. Critics argue that this leaves the admissions process even more biased against students of color.

What actions is the Education Department considering to discourage legacy admissions?

While specific actions have not been detailed, Secretary Cardona stated that he is committed to leveraging any available resources, including federal financial aid and loans, to ensure they are directed towards educational institutions that offer true value. The Department also has the authority to issue fines for civil rights violations.

What has been the impact of the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action?

The Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action has led to a reexamination of legacy admissions. Critics argue that the ruling makes the admissions process more lopsided against students of color, thereby necessitating the need for reform in legacy admissions policies.

Are there any colleges that have already disavowed legacy admissions?

A handful of smaller colleges have ceased legacy admissions in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action. However, there has been no evident shift in policy among the nation’s premier educational institutions.

What do defenders of legacy admissions argue?

Proponents of legacy admissions contend that the practice fosters community and enhances fundraising. They also argue that as college campuses become more diverse, the benefits of legacy admissions are increasingly extending to families of color.

What are the potential consequences of not addressing legacy admissions?

Secretary Cardona warned that failing to address the issue could result in similar setbacks seen in California after it ended affirmative action in 1996. The state’s most selective colleges saw significant decreases in enrollment among Black and Latino students.

What is the broader context in which Secretary Cardona views the issue of legacy admissions?

Secretary Cardona views the issue not just in terms of fostering diverse educational settings, but also as a matter of national strength. He questions the nation’s ability to compete globally if it follows in the footsteps of California’s repeal of affirmative action.

Are there any ongoing investigations related to legacy admissions?

Yes, the federal government has recently initiated an inquiry at Harvard University following a complaint alleging that the university’s legacy admissions practices amount to racial discrimination.

What additional steps are being advocated to address this issue?

Advocates have urged the Education Department to commence collecting data on the demographics and numbers of legacy students. They believe that persistent scrutiny and pressure need to be maintained to encourage reform.

More about Legacy Admissions

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10 comments

Bill Evans September 22, 2023 - 2:10 pm

Wow, California’s situation sounds like a cautionary tale. Didn’t know the situation got that bad after ending affirmative action.

Reply
Tom Allen September 22, 2023 - 3:53 pm

Harvard’s under investigation? Now that’s news. If they make an example out of such a big name, others will have to listen.

Reply
Nina Patel September 22, 2023 - 6:56 pm

Cardona’s remarks about this affecting our global competitiveness were eye-opening. Never thought about it in those terms before.

Reply
John Smith September 22, 2023 - 7:19 pm

Wow, didn’t see this coming. Cardona is really shaking the table, isn’t he? Using federal funds as leverage could be a game-changer.

Reply
Sophia Turner September 22, 2023 - 11:22 pm

As an alum, I can see how legacy could be important for community but I also get the criticisms. It’s a tough issue for sure.

Reply
Mike Brown September 23, 2023 - 2:20 am

Let’s see if this actually leads to any change. talk is cheap, especially in politics. But i’m hopeful, can’t lie.

Reply
Emily Roberts September 23, 2023 - 4:01 am

So, Cardona wants diversity but no word on how he’s gonna measure ‘value’? Seems like a loophole that could be exploited.

Reply
Jane Doe September 23, 2023 - 6:16 am

finally someone’s talking about it. Legacy admissions have always seemed so unfair to me. Glad it’s getting attention now.

Reply
Mark Johnson September 23, 2023 - 7:55 am

I think Cardona’s on the right track, but man, the devil’s in the details. How will they actually enforce this? What will the criteria be?

Reply
Lisa Green September 23, 2023 - 10:01 am

If they’re gonna collect data on legacy students, they better make it public. Transparency is key here.

Reply

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