Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling this summer striking down the consideration of race in college admissions, attention has turned to other preferences college leaders have long used: especially legacy admission programs that give preference to the children of alumni and of large donors.
Suddenly, selective colleges are under increasing scrutiny about just how much advantage alumni and donor children have in the admissions process, and whether those preferences are justified.
Just last week, the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights inquiry into Harvard University’s use of legacy admissions, after three Boston-area groups filed a complaint charging that the practices appeared especially unfair now that the consideration of race has been barred. It was Harvard, along with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that were at the center of the Supreme Court case about affirmative action at colleges.
And a few universities announced this month that they are ending their legacy admissions programs — including Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri System and Wesleyan University.
The question now is whether a groundswell of other colleges will opt to do the same, or if they will eventually be compelled to.
For this week’s EdSurge Podcast, we look at the past and future of legacy admissions, with conversations with two experts who have long watched the issue:
“Legacy preferences in my view have always been unfair, that they’re giving an advantage to people who already have lots of advantages in life,” says Kahlenberg. “And yet they now seem especially unfair given that the Supreme Court has disallowed the use of race in admissions.”
Of course, legacy admissions is nothing new, and the politics of the programs has been complicated, argues Kahlenberg. When he was working on his book on the topic more than a decade ago, he says he reached out to civil rights groups hoping they’d be interested in using his research to launch campaigns against legacy programs, but had few takers.
“They were hesitant because universities were using affirmative action based on race at that point, and there’s kind of a symbiotic relationship between preferences for legacies and preferences for underrepresented minority students,” he says. “The civil rights folks liked the idea that legacy preferences were there to the extent that they could make an argument that, ‘Listen, there are all sorts of preferences in college admissions,’ and so race should be allowed as one of those factors.”
The recent Supreme Court ruling essentially ends what Kahlenberg calls that “unholy alliance.”
And it turns out there’s widespread opposition to the practice of legacy admissions. A Pew Research Center poll conducted last year found that 75 percent of those surveyed said legacy preferences should not be considered in college admissions.
The main defenders of the practice are the colleges themselves, who argue that their finances rely on legacy preferences. But even that financial argument is not well-founded, argues Kahlenberg.
The narrative over who should get what opportunity in education is overdue for a reset, argues Holcomb-McCoy of American University. She complains that discussions of the consideration of race in admissions have long wrongly cast doubts on the qualifications of students of color.
“I think there’s been this false narrative that somehow non-eligible students of color are getting in and they shouldn’t be there because they don’t have the academic [qualifications]. And that’s not true,” she says.
A new analysis of admissions practices of 12 of the nation’s most selective colleges shows that it’s legacy admission that gives large boosts to applicants. The researchers found that students whose parents went to the college have a five- to six-fold higher chance of getting in compared to someone with the same application credentials but no family ties.
Holcomb-McCoy hopes that more will change beyond just legacy admissions, and that officials at K-12 schools and colleges will try new strategies to improve diversity in higher education. She organized her advice into an article for the Hechinger Report — an article that ran back in 2018. It’s a reminder that the question of improving access to college is a longstanding one.
If you’re looking for an explainer about the stakes of the legacy admissions debate and where it’s headed, this episode digs in.