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Is It the Beginning of the End of Legacy Admissions?

One of the most controversial aspects of the college admissions process is not what you think. It's not the debate over standardized test scores. It's no longer even how the U.S. Supreme Court ended affirmative action last year. It is a rarely discussed topic called "legacy admissions."

Now more than ever before, this long-established yet quietly administered piece of the admissions process is getting challenged on the state and federal level.

Legacy admissions refers to when a college gives preferences or advantages in the admissions process to a student whose family member, usually a parent (but sometimes a grandparent or other family member depending on how a college defines it), is an alum of the college. These students are by definition coming from college-educated families and therefore more likely to come from higher income and often less diverse backgrounds as well. At some private and public colleges that still value legacies, being a legacy can significantly increase a student’s chances of admission. For example, the most recent acceptance rate for legacy applicants at Harvard University was 30% compared to its overall acceptance rate of 3-4%.

Colleges have been quiet and slow to address the legacy debate because of the financial benefits it brings to an institution. Alumni are often the biggest donor population for a college. Leading up to when their child applies and after they get admitted to their alma mater, alumni donations can increase in both frequency and the amount. In terms of a college's board of trustees, most members are alumni who wield tremendous power in the day-to-day operation and the long term goals of a college. Their own children and grandchildren have benefited greatly in the admissions process from their roles at the college. Trustees are powerful fiduciaries who dictate the college's priorities and they are hesitant to do away with something they want or have benefited from. 

College presidents often have their hands tied when it comes to this issue. They either have benefited from being a legacy, their own child has benefited from it, or they just are not willing to take a stand against their board of trustees. Brown University's president, Christina H. Paxson, announced recently that the college would be reinstating the standardized testing requirement for admission on the grounds that the test-optional policy Brown had during the pandemic "potentially undermin[ed] the goal of increasing access." Yet, the college’s legacy policy is unchanged, despite it being known to limit access. Interestingly, Paxson's own child benefited from legacy admissions at her alma mater, Swarthmore College, and Brown as well.

Over the last decade, though, a number of private colleges have eliminated legacy admissions including Johns Hopkins University, MIT, Caltech, Amherst College, Carnegie Mellon University, and Pomona College. Some public universities also eliminated legacy admissions—University of California, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, University of Texas, Virginia Tech, and Texas A&M, to name a few. 

President Biden called on the Department of Education last year to investigate legacy practices in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ending affirmative action. Additionally, Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) are sponsoring a bipartisan bill that would ban preferential treatment to children of alumni or donors at the federal level. In the meantime, Virginia's governor signed a bill last week banning legacy preferences at all public universities in the state. This means the other public institutions in Virginia, like the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, can no longer give a thumb on the scale for legacies. Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York are considering similar legislation. Colorado banned legacy admissions in public colleges in 2021.

While some colleges have quietly and slowly reduced the percentage of legacies in an admitted class because of mounting pressure over the years, being a legacy still carries weight—until now, at least. With affirmative action ending last year, colleges will face a reckoning when it comes to all practices that have advantaged one group over another.

READ MORE: The Hidden Factors That Influence Who Gets In

It is common to want your child to attend your alma mater, especially when you had such a positive experience there. Yet, with rapidly decreasing acceptance rates and a need to diversify the student body as much as the law will permit, colleges may unintentionally turn legacies into anything but that. No matter where you stand on this issue, legacies have been powerful stakeholders in higher education. If legacy practices end at more colleges and are banned in more states, a legacy will no longer be a legacy anymore.