The State of Legacy Admissions

Given recent trends, the children of alumni may not get a leg up for much longer.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to forbid racial admissions preferences in SFFA v. Harvard and UNC, collegiate diversity proponents have taken aim at other preference regimes thought to exacerbate disparate racial impacts. This has resulted in widespread calls to abolish legacy preferences, with diversity advocates arguing that such preferences “tend to benefit people who are white, rich or both.” The aforementioned camp has formed an unlikely alliance with defenders of meritocracy, who view legacy admissions as an untenable substitute for academic achievement.

Many colleges unilaterally eliminated their legacy-admissions preferences shortly after the SFFA ruling, among them Wesleyan University, the University of Maryland, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, and Occidental College. Wesleyan president Michael Roth told Inside Higher Ed that advocating for diversity while allowing legacy preferences amounts to hypocrisy, adding that he has witnessed “a sea change in alumni attitudes toward legacy.”

Given the weight of public scrutiny and the attitude shift described by Roth, it is difficult to tell whether administrators at these institutions are taking a principled stance in favor of meritocracy, advancing racial-diversity initiatives, or reactively sticking a finger in the wind of alumni and media preferences. Regardless of the underlying motives, however, the termination of legacy preferences is a trend that is likely to continue.

Regardless of the underlying motives, the termination of legacy preferences is a trend that is likely to continue.Notably, UNC-Chapel Hill, which was at the center of the affirmative-action case, still considers legacy status in admissions. Indeed, the Washington Post has reported that over 100 selective schools, including the entirety of the Ivy League, still consider the legacy status of their applicants. Princeton University’s president has publicly defended legacy preferences, stating that “the ties back to earlier generations add something special to our community.”

Outside the ivory tower, the SFFA ruling has emboldened legislators in several states to take action against legacy preferences. Inside Higher Ed recently reported that a legislative proposal in New York seeks “to ban the practice outright” at both public and private schools, and that lawmakers in Pennsylvania and California intend to introduce similar proposals. A bill under consideration in Massachusetts would tax institutions that use legacy preferences in order to create a “public trust fund for community colleges.”

Federal lawmakers are also seizing upon heightened public scrutiny to advocate against legacy preferences. According to Higher Ed Dive, Senators Edward Markey, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders requested that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona use his “advisory and investigatory authority” to “end preferential treatment given to children of alumni.” Dozens of House and Senate Democrats are co-sponsoring the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, a bill being re-introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Jamaal Bowman to ban legacy preferences nationwide.

While many legislative attempts to reform legacy admissions are unlikely to gain sufficient traction, the U.S. Department of Education is taking matters into its own hands. In response to disparate-impact-grounded allegations of racial discrimination made by three civil-rights organizations, the department opened a Title VI investigation into Harvard’s legacy admissions practices. The New York Times notes that the department has “powerful enforcement authority that could eventually lead to a settlement with Harvard or trigger a lengthy legal battle.” The Biden administration’s fight with Harvard has garnered significant media attention, with the president himself stating that legacy preferences expand “privilege instead of opportunity.”

There is a strong argument to be made that public universities, funded by taxpayers, should not favor applicants due to legacy status or parental donations. To tax the residents of a state to finance a non-meritocratic public institution raises significant moral and fairness concerns. However, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association ought to preclude the federal government from intervening in admissions practices that advantage legacy students at private schools. Preferences that don’t conflict with anti-discrimination and public-accommodation laws should not be punishable.

Stakeholders have already persuaded administrators at many private schools to terminate legacy-admissions practices. This demonstrates that anti-legacy objectives can be attained without unconstitutional government intervention.

Harrington Shaw is an intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a senior studying economics and philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill.