Pressure is mounting on prestigious colleges and universities to abandon the practice of giving admissions preference to applicants whose parents attended the institution, known as “legacy admissions.” The pushback comes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s rejection of race-based affirmative action, and this sudden attention to other admissions practices provokes renewed scrutiny and discussion.

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As reported by Nick Anderson for The Washington Post, legacy admissions, particularly in private colleges, are viewed by some as perpetuating privilege instead of promoting opportunity. This practice is seen as providing an unfair advantage that often benefits wealthy, white applicants over applicants of color or those from lower-income families.

Key Takeaways

  • The Supreme Court ruling against race-based affirmative action is drawing more attention to legacy admissions.
  • The legacy admissions preference has deep roots in higher education and is difficult to abolish.
  • Over 100 selective schools have stated that they consider the relationship between applicants and alumni in their admissions decisions.

Legacy Admissions under Fire

The call for change is gaining momentum, with President Biden, Capitol Hill, and everyday Americans voicing concerns. The preference has a long-standing tradition in higher education, especially at private institutions, making it more complex to eliminate. A Washington Post investigation found over 100 selective schools, encompassing the Ivy League, consider alumni-applicant relationships in admissions decisions.

The leaders of these elite institutions are under increasing pressure to respond to these concerns. Despite their professed commitment to social mobility, they appear uneasy with allegations that they favor privilege. There is little public defense of legacy preferences. In the background, some institutions are considering assessing this admissions factor’s benefits and drawbacks.

One of these institutions is Rice University. Its president, Reginald DesRoches, acknowledges the growing need for examination.

“This is absolutely something we need to take a closer look at,” he admits. While noting that legacy is a minor factor in admissions decisions, DesRoches recognizes that children of alumni “bring a level of commitment and familiarity with the institution”, which he views as a plus.

Rice University is now looking to expand its community college transfers and partnerships with historically black colleges and universities to maintain diversity. They are also focusing on broadening their outreach to families in disadvantaged communities to educate them about available financial aid.

The Legacy Preference Controversy

The Common Data Set, a yearly questionnaire for higher education analysts, offers some insight into the admissions process. The Washington Post’s review of more than 140 leading colleges and universities revealed nearly all considered course rigor and academic GPA important, and over 100 considered race or alumni-applicant relationships. Among these were Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the schools that defended race-conscious admissions before the Supreme Court.

Public opinion, however, firmly opposes legacy preferences. A Washington Post-Schar School poll from October found that 75% of Americans believe it’s inappropriate for universities to offer preferential treatment to students whose parents attended the same university. Last year, Democrats on Capitol Hill proposed legislation to bar schools from receiving federal aid from providing preferential treatment to alumni children in admissions.

A Pragmatic View on Legacy Preferences

The justification for legacy preferences is often associated with financial incentives. Jonathan Fansmith, senior vice president of government relations at the American Council on Education, suggests that these preferences bring financial benefits to institutions that can be redirected to support low-income students and enrich educational opportunities for all.

Yet, critics argue that legacy admissions amplify the existing inequities in college admissions and wider society. The fact that wealth can afford college-bound students numerous advantages such as test-preparation tutors, essay-writing consultants, academic enrichment activities, niche sports pursuits, and more is a point of contention.

The opacity of the admissions process further fuels the controversy. Insiders from renowned schools contend that many children of alumni are strong candidates who would secure admission, regardless of legacy status. They also argue that as colleges have diversified over the years, legacy preferences have begun to benefit more applicants of color.

A Road Ahead for Higher Education

Amid the whirlwind of college admissions issues, the legacy preference debate is capturing extraordinary attention. While some schools like Rice University are exploring other diversity initiatives, others have already abandoned legacy admissions. Institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Amherst College, Johns Hopkins University, and Carnegie Mellon University do not consider alumni relationships in admissions.

Despite resistance, the landscape of college admissions is clearly changing. As colleges and universities grapple with these changes, they face the challenge of navigating their alumni networks, fundraising efforts, and institutional values. The increased scrutiny of legacy admissions could transform how students are selected, possibly reshaping the face of higher education.


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