Report: Legacy Admissions Lead to Disparities

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Six civil rights groups released recommendations for advancing educational equity following the Supreme Court's affirmative action ban.

Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate race-conscious admissions practices. Despite this shift, many colleges and universities still favor applicants with familial ties to alumni. A recent report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) highlights the significant impact of these policies on furthering disparities in college access, particularly for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. 

Nearly one-third of selective four-year institutions in the U.S. considered legacy status during the 2021-2022 academic year, according to IHEP analysis based on data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The prevalence of this policy is highest among selective private nonprofit institutions, with 42% incorporating legacy status into their admissions decisions.

In contrast, 15% of selective public four-year colleges engaged in this practice. During the same academic year, 2.1 million undergraduate students attended institutions that factored in legacy status during admission, with public four-year colleges representing nearly 30% of these students.

Legacy admissions tend to favor applicants from college-educated families, who are disproportionately White and affluent, per the IHEP report. This preference perpetuates disparities in college access, putting Black and Hispanic students and those from low-income backgrounds at a disadvantage. These practices undermine the mission of public colleges to serve as pathways to economic mobility, Marián Vargas, a senior research analyst at IHEP, and Sean Tierney, IHEP’s director of research and policy, wrote in their summary of the report.

“Students who are the first in their families to attend college are particularly disadvantaged by legacy admissions policies because their parents have not earned a degree,” they wrote. 

The IPEDS data reveal that selective institutions not considering legacy status are more racially diverse and enroll higher proportions of Black and Hispanic students. These schools also serve more low-income students, with 42% of their full-time, first-time undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, compared to 36% at institutions that consider legacy status. 

In recent years, calls to end legacy admission have intensified. So far, lawmakers in Colorado, Maryland, and Virginia have passed laws banning the practices, while several other key states — including California, Massachusetts, and New York — have introduced similar legislation. The researchers at IHEP urge both institutions and legislatures to do away with any admissions considerations based on familial relations to alumni, and instead focus on supporting low-income and first-generation students.

“To diversify student populations, enrich learning communities, and deliver educational excellence to all students, institutions should stop considering legacy status when making admissions decisions and instead consider whether students are the first in their family to go to college,” Vargas and Tierney wrote.