From campus to Congress, colleges urged to end legacy boost

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America’s elite colleges are facing growing calls to end the decades-old tradition of giving an admissions boost to the children of alumni—a practice that critics say is rooted in racism and bestows an unfair advantage to students who need it least.

Fueled by the national reckoning with racial injustice, opponents say they are gaining momentum in the battle over the contentious policy of legacy preferences.

Ivy League students are pressing administrators to abandon the policy. Yale’s student government took a stance against the practice in November. A recent vote of Harvard students found that 60% oppose it. Hundreds of students and alumni across 30 colleges have promised to withhold financial donations over the issue.

Civil rights groups are increasingly adding their support, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which is tackling legacy preferences as part of a campaign against systematic racism.

And a bill in Congress aims to eliminate the practice.

The proposal from Democrats would outlaw preferences for children of alumni or donors at colleges that receive federal money. It’s being pushed by the party’s progressive wing but has gained support from some conservative activists who want college admissions to be based on merit alone.

Legacy preferences give an extra boost to predominantly white and wealthy legacy students, while “leaving out millions of Black and brown kids,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., a sponsor.

“There has been a shift in the consciousness of the country around issues of inequity and inequality,” Bowman said in an interview. “There’s a real yearning to right the wrongs of our past.”

In the heavily guarded world of college admissions, it’s hard to know exactly how many legacy students get a nudge. But at some of the most selective colleges, students with family ties make up 10% to 20% of the latest incoming class, according to data released by colleges in response to an Associated Press request.

On many campuses, the opposition is being led by students of color and those who are the first in their families to attend college. They say legacy status is one more advantage for students who are already more likely to have access to tutoring, test prep and other help applying to college.

Zoe Fuad, a junior at Brown University, said it reinforces a “cycle of inequity” that was designed to serve wealthy white men.

“By perpetually giving advantages to their descendants, we’re ensuring that those who were systemically favored continue to be favored,” said Fuad, 20, who leads a student group that’s challenging the practice at Brown.

Many prestigious colleges defend legacy admissions, saying it helps build an alumni community and encourages donations. Officials at Harvard and other schools argue that legacy status is just one of many factors considered in admissions, along with grades, test scores and pursuits outside school. At most, they say, it can provide a slight tip in a student’s favor.

Still, two colleges have ended the practice recently, giving opponents hope that others will follow.

Amherst College in Massachusetts dropped the policy in October, saying it “inadvertently limits educational opportunity.” Johns Hopkins University announced in 2020 that it had phased out legacy preferences. Since then, the school has drawn growing numbers of Black and Hispanic students, along with those from low-income families.

The pushback against legacy preferences is advancing amid a broader debate over fairness in college admissions.

Last month the Supreme Court agreed to review whether colleges can consider applicants’ race as a way to expand diversity. The court will take up lawsuits alleging that Harvard University and the University of North Carolina discriminate against Asian American applicants in favor of Black and Hispanic students.

In a rare moment of bipartisan unity, the conservative strategist behind those suits voiced support for the Democrats’ bill against legacy benefits. In a statement, Edward Blum said too many colleges “lower the admissions bar for the children of their alumni.”

Most schools are not required to disclose how many legacy students they enroll, and many keep it private. Among the nation’s 30 most selective colleges, only eight provided basic data on the subject in response to an AP request.

At those colleges, the share of legacy students in this year’s freshman class averaged 12%. The lowest share was at Rice University in Houston, where 4% of this year’s first-year class had legacy status. The University of Notre Dame said legacy students have averaged 23% of the student body over the past decade.

Legacy students outnumbered Black students in freshman classes at four schools: Notre Dame, Cornell, Dartmouth and the University of Southern California. At Brown, the share of legacy and Black students was about even.

Harvard refused to disclose details, but data made public during its trial over affirmative action showed that family ties carry outsize weight. From 2014 to 2019, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants was 34%, compared with 6% for applicants without legacy status, according to an analysis by the suit’s plaintiffs.

Critics of the practice say it contributes to persistently low numbers of Black students at top colleges. During the racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd by police, hundreds of students at Georgetown University signed a letter calling for an end to legacy preference, saying it “relegates qualified Black students to second-tier status.”

Historians have traced legacy preference to the 1920s as elite colleges sought to limit the number of Jewish students. It continued for decades at a time when the vast majority of college students in the U.S. were white men.

At many schools with legacy preferences, Black students were not admitted until the 1960s, said Michael Dannenberg, a vice president at the Education Reform Now think tank.

“White applicants have between eight and 16 generations of ancestors on which to establish an alumni connection,” said Dannenberg, who has opposed the practice since he was an aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy, the late Massachusetts Democrat, two decades ago. “For the vast majority of Black and Latino applicants, there’s maybe one or two generations.”

On college campuses, student activists say they continue to face resistance from school leaders who defend the policy. But at a time of rising populism in the United States, colleges are unlikely to find allies in Congress and other halls of power, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank in Washington.

Especially in the wake of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal, he said, it’s becoming more difficult for colleges to defend policies that benefit the wealthy.

“They are clearly vulnerable on this issue,” he said.

In the wake of that scandal, Colorado became the first state in the nation to outlaw legacy preferences at public colleges. California lawmakers required colleges to disclose how many legacy students get accepted.

Among campus activists, there’s a driving desire to change the perception that top colleges are ivory towers reserved for the wealthy. When Viet Andy Nguyen applied to Brown University as a low-income, first-generation student, he knew he was competing against wealthier students with alumni connections. It made him question whether Brown was really a place for people like him.

After graduating from Brown in 2017, he launched the nonprofit EdMobilizer with the goal of expanding access to college and ending legacy preferences. He has orchestrated a donation boycott at schools across the U.S., and he’s helping students fight the practice on scores of campuses.

It isn’t lost on him that he’s challenging a policy that could benefit his future children. He has faced resistance from some students of color who wonder why he wants to end it now, when campuses are more racially diverse than ever. But to him, the goal is to open doors for students who have been excluded, not to create “an elite lineage of people of color.”

“My kids will be fine,” he said. “They don’t need an additional bump just for being my offspring.”

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16 thoughts on “From campus to Congress, colleges urged to end legacy boost

  1. I recall one of my college history professors nearly fifty years ago whose two daughters attended very selective boarding schools and wanted to attend his Alma Mater, a highly selective New England former men’s college now newly co-ed. His father and grandfather had also graduated from that college, the girls were both high achievers in school and had perfect SAT scores. In separate admissions cycles both were rejected. After years of being a loyal donor his response was, “Not another F-ing dime”.
    Not every loyal alum’s well qualified kids get in as legacy.

    1. John F., while that’s certainly true, you’re citing anecdotal evidence. “…at some of the most selective colleges, students with family ties make up 10% to 20% of the latest incoming class.” and, “The University of Notre Dame said legacy students have averaged 23% of the student body over the past decade.” and, at Harvard “From 2014 to 2019, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants was 34%, compared with 6% for applicants without legacy status…”

  2. I love how the guy at the end of the article is leading a boycott on donations to some of these universities. What he doesn’t realize is that many of these universities are willing to underwrite or give up any revenue on first generation, people of lower socioeconomic status to increase diversity. By decreasing donations, he’s decreasing colleges’ ability to do such practices. This is the problem with extreme liberalism… they don’t actually think problems through thoroughly.

  3. The trouble is, colleges conduct their admissions process behind closed doors in an extremely opaque manner, so it will be very difficult to know if they have really abandoned the practice. “A recent vote of Harvard students found that 60% oppose it.” Guess who is among the other 40%?

    1. The reality of course is that they won’t abandon it. It’s too lucrative of a gravy train.

      John F’s story captures it perfectly. People expect their children to get favored admissions, especially if they are hugely supportive alums. And most schools won’t be willing to run the risk of a drop in that support, especially during tough economies.

      At best, the acceptance rate for children of elite families with multi-generation alums will drop from 34% to 30%. And they’ll report this 13.3% drop as “nearly 15% of a decline in legacy admissions is a promising start”. And then continue an aggressive PR counter-assault on DEI initiatives. Some of these kids are genuinely qualified: went to the best prep schools, had private tutors, trained in 5 languages, took a sabbatical to create and manage a microfinance platform in Lesotho at the age of 14, etc. But many of the ones who are basically guaranteed admission are of course the children of people with nine or ten-figure net worth.

      This whole anti-legacy push is just a cog in the PR wheel for these schools. And the DEI grift is another cog.

  4. The data showing a significant percentage of students at a school being “legacy” students, by itself, proves nothing. The relevant stat would be how many of these “legacy” students have qualifications that are below those of most (non-athlete) non-legacy students. My guess is that most “legacy” students are highly qualified and their presence at their parents’ alma mater simply reflects their preference to go where the parent(s) did, not any special admissions treatment. There are no doubt a few unqualified “special admits” (alumni relatives, athletes, politically connected), but I am confident they are a very small percentage of the student body.

    1. As you point out, your take is pure guesswork. The schools don’t divulge this information at all. For Harvard: “Out of an all-time record 57,435 applicants, a mere 1,968 of Class of 2025 hopefuls were admitted. This translates to a stunningly low (even by Harvard’s standards) 3.43% acceptance rate.” Clearly they could have packed 5-10 classes full of students with perfect or near perfect SAT scores and GPAs, many of whom have started their own NFP organizations and have a bevy of other resume enhancers. So, tell me again how legacies didn’t get a huge advantage when they represented 34% (!) of the admits. And that’s to say nothing about the inherent advantage that wealth bestows on those students: premiere prep school, tutors for everything they need, including SAT/ ACT test prep, private “admissions consultants” to optimize your applications, etc.

    2. Randy, I think the 34% represents the acceptance rate for legacies, not the percentage of total admitted. The article shows UND to have the largest legacy acceptance rate, at 23%. This is staggeringly high, but the median legacy acceptance is 12%, and we don’t necessary have a fixed definition for “legacy”.

      One critical factor of being “elite” is that they must (to deserve the “elite” label) represent a very tiny top-most subset. 34% is hardly tiny. If it were the case that 34% were legacy admittances, many of those couldn’t be ultra-wealthy because there simply aren’t that many–it would fall into a lower tier of wealth.

      Frankly, though, it wouldn’t surprise me if the 34% is derived through some fancy mashing together of numbers. I have a sneaking suspicion that the acceptance rate for actual legacies (both the extreme wealthy and the merely very comfortable four-generation admittances) is still closer to 90%. If you father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all got admitted to Yale (and–more importantly–were all generous alums), your standards for admittance are simply going to be much lower, regardless of any other demographic variables.

  5. To say that it is rooted in racism is absolute bovine scat. Everything is not about race.
    It has to do with keeping alumni loyal to the institution…and continuing to donate.

    1. Dominic, this is what one would call “institutional racism”, not “scat”. Since white people have been in a privileged position for many, many generations, it’s easy to see why they represent the overwhelming majority of alumni and, not coincidentally, the ones most able to have wealth to make contributions.

    2. It is absolutely about keeping alumni loyal and donating, however when those alumni are disproportionately white it becomes a racial filter. One of the biggest misconceptions of racism is that it is somehow requisite overt. By providing an advantage to the children of alumni who are known to be racially skewed versus the general population and new applicants these universities have embodied a policy that is the textbook definition of institutional racism. I’m not mad at them for their historical practice, but now that we know it’s created an unintended consequence they should make changes.

    3. Was it institutional racism when Notre Dame accepted minorities BEFORE most state schools? Or had minorities on their teams before most schools?

      Try hard enough and you can spin the weather forecast into being the result of racism.

    4. It’s fun watching people bandy about terms like “institutional racism” when applied to institutions that have been controlled by one political party for decades…typically the same political party from which the users of this epithet hold allegiance.

  6. Reading is key, directly form the article:
    “Historians have traced legacy preference to the 1920s as elite colleges sought to limit the number of Jewish students.”

  7. Everything in colleges and Universities is donations and making money, primarily for their precious endowments. When the money starts drying up, and these institutions can’t get enough money for their elaborate lifestyles they will rethink this latest fad. The necessity for a college is becoming less and less. Except for certain professions and academic pursuits, college or university diplomas are little more than paper. Take it from me, I have three university diplomas; one BA and two terminal masters degrees. Other than the last which was required to get to be an architect, the others didn’t matter that much in terms of a job. Colleges and Universities will begin to resemble all government jobs where the vast majority of positions will be occupied by women and minorities; no white men need apply. The vast majority of new businesses and jobs will be created by people with no college diplomas, home schooled and it will be people with college and university degrees coming to them, with hat in hand, asking for a “job.”