As a major step toward more equitable admissions policies following the U.S. Supreme Court ban on affirmative action, college and university leaders, politicians, education experts, and the general public are calling for an end to legacy admissions — the practice of giving preference to students who have familial connections to alumni.
Although a growing number of universities, including Johns Hopkins University, Amherst College, and, recently, Carleton College, have opted out of legacy admissions, the practice is still widely utilized in higher education, especially by elite schools.
Nearly 800 institutions reported providing a legacy preference in 2020. That number represents approximately half of the four-year institutions that completed the Common Data Set, standardized questions and statistics about colleges and universities utilized for comparative purposes, according to Education Reform Now (ERN), a nonprofit advocacy group. The organization’s 2022 study, “The Future of Fair Admissions, Issue Brief 2: Legacy Preferences,” is part of a series published in anticipation of the recent affirmative action ruling. ERN helped pass a state bill in Colorado banning the practice of legacy admissions and is pushing for similar laws across the country.
Legacy status had not played a significant role in decisions at Carleton, but at times it had given a slight advantage to a specific pool of students, university president Alison Byerly, PhD, said in a statement.
“Nevertheless, we recognize that in a highly competitive process, even a slight advantage can have an impact on outcomes,” Byerly said. “We believe that our goal of expanding access makes this the right time to discontinue legacy preference.”
Officials at colleges like Harvard University and Duke University have defended the practice, arguing that it can create a sense of belonging and build lasting relationships with students and alumni.
“We are an institution that was made in a family, the Duke family,” Vincent Price, PhD, Duke president, said in the annual address to faculty in 2022. “We bear the name of that family. We represent family. We talk about family. So how does that translate into the way we behave? The idea that you would ban legacy admissions or ban any particular factor as a consideration is troublesome.”
However, James Murphy, PhD, author of the ERN study and deputy director of higher education policy at the organization, strongly disagrees with that concept of family.
“To be clear, Duke University is not a family. It is a social and cultural institution that possesses a great deal of wealth and power. There’s a word for the conflation of institutions with family: it’s called aristocracy,” he says.
At Harvard, legacy applicants with the highest academic standing were more than twice as likely to be admitted than those who have equally high rankings but come from households below a $60,000 income level, the ERN study found.
“It’s important to get rid of legacy preferences because they’re unfair. … They’re a barrier to social mobility because they favor wealthy people and to diversity because they favor White people,” Murphy says.
Such opposition isn’t a new battlefront. Americans from both political parties have shown opposition to legacy admissions since the 1960s. Seventy-five percent of Americans and 89 percent of college admissions directors currently oppose it, according to the study.
“It’s important to get rid of legacy preferences because they’re unfair. … They’re a barrier to social mobility because they favor wealthy people and to diversity because they favor White people.”
James Murphy, PhD
In July, legal advocacy groups banded together to file a civil rights complaint against Harvard, claiming the practice of legacy admissions at the university is discriminatory. The school’s admissions practices are now under investigation by the federal government.
With new state laws, legal pressure, a lack of popularity, and negative media attention, Murphy is hopeful that colleges and universities will increasingly abandon the practice.
Meanwhile, he’s calling on the U.S. Department of Education to require colleges and universities to provide more detailed data reporting, including information on how their application processes work, the number of legacy applicants, and specific race and ethnicity figures.
Other solutions focus on disincentivizing legacy admissions, including eliminating state student financial aid, Title IV funding, and federal financial aid. Subjecting institutions to the endowment tax for providing legacy preference might also be considered as a deterrent.
In no way is ending legacy admissions the final stamp on admissions reform — it’s the start of it, says Murphy. Many argue that even if legacy preferences end, wealthy students will still have a lot of advantages, and Murphy agrees, but he says that’s not a reason to ignore it.
“You get rid of every barrier you can possibly get rid of,” he says. “The thing with legacy is it’s an on/off switch. Colleges can just look at it and say, ‘We’re going to stop it.’”●
This article was published in our October 2023 issue.