When the nation’s highest court overturned race-conscious admission decisions, affirmative action supporters and detractors alike set their sights on another controversial admissions practice: the consideration of applicant relationships to alumni and donors.
Among them was U.S. Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana.
He called the practice an “impediment to fair admissions standards” and said they advanced “aristocracy” in an interview with the Indiana Capital Chronicle.
“I saw an opportunity in the wake of that decision to assemble a coalition, bipartisan in nature,” Young said.
In two June rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the use of race and ethnicity in higher education admission decisions.
Young and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, introduced a bill this month banning accredited institutions from offering preferential treatment to applicants with relationships to alumni or donors.
The legislation would allow institutions to consider “demonstrated interest,” but only if the term is defined, the definition publicly available, and all applicants get the opportunity to demonstrate that interest.
It also includes protections for faith-based institutions, a concession to one of the nation’s major users of legacy admissions: the University of Notre Dame, located in Indiana.
Young hopes to ensure that “these gateways to opportunity—colleges and universities—aren’t vehicles for aristocratic perpetuation, but instead, small-d democratic advancement.”
Young said he’s worked hard for his accomplishments, but also grew up with the benefits of a two-parent household, a good public school district, many positive role models and so on. Other Americans may not have that “depth of circumstance,” he said.
“America is all about the right to rise, the ability to to improve your station if you work really hard and play by the rules. But it becomes dispiriting if you have to work five times as hard as somebody else to end up where they are,” Young added.
Hoosier universities unbothered
Indiana’s two public university systems—Indiana University and Purdue University—don’t consider alumni or donor relationships in the admissions process, spokespeople confirmed.
But the University of Notre Dame, a private university in St. Jospeh County, has among the highest rates of legacy admits in the country.
Between 19% and 25% of each class are legacy admits, estimated now-retired undergraduate enrollment head, Don Bishop in a 2022 interview with the university’s student paper. The university didn’t provide requested alumni and donor admission numbers to the Capital Chronicle.
Most estimates put legacy admits at the eight highly selective Ivy League institutions between 10% and 15%.
In a statement, public affairs vice president Pedro Ribeiro said the university “welcome(s)” the senators’ efforts to “ensure that all deserving applicants are treated fairly.”
He said Notre Dame shares that goal and noted that the university was founded in 1842 to serve children of working Catholic families.
About 20% of Notre Dame’s current first-year students are from lower-income families and some are the first from their families to attend college. Those students now outnumber legacy admits, according to Ribeiro.
“(They) illustrate Notre Dame’s enduring commitment to our founding mission, our Catholic faith and fairness through need blind admissions,” Ribeiro added. “Senators Kaine and Young have identified an important issue for higher education and society at large. We commend them, and we look forward to working together.“
Alongside its changes to accreditation requirements, the legislation offers a broadly worded out to religious colleges and universities.
“Nothing,” it says, “… shall be construed to inhibit the right of a religious institution to make admissions decisions consistent with the institution’s faith-based values.’’
It’s unclear what, if anything, the university would have to change if the legislation were approved. Officials didn’t respond to specific questions from the Capital Chronicle.
Young said he heard some compelling arguments (and some “not”) in conversations with university officials. Among those concerns was ensuring that applicants actually desire to go to Notre Dame.
“I did not account for that,” Young said. “And if there’s a correlation between (applicants that) want to go here and had some family members who went here, I accept that we’re going to have to make some some allocation for that.”
About 75% of admitted legacy applicants enroll, Bishop—the former undergraduate admissions chief—estimated in 2022. The yield rate dropped to 50% for non-legacy applicants.
Still, Young said, the legislation was an effort to “un-rig” the system.
Public trust in higher education has dropped sharply in recent years, according to a June Gallup poll. Hoosiers and their lawmakers have openly questioned the costs versus the benefits of four-year and advanced degrees.
“This is an effort to unrig (the system) … and to acknowledge that that there is some truth to that charge,” he said.
The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.