The tradition of ‘legacy’ college admissions is under fire. Here’s why.

Harvard University image. (Photo

An investigation by the Education Department into legacy admissions at Harvard University has sparked a fresh debate over the long-standing practice, as notoriously opaque college admissions processes come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of a Supreme Court affirmative action ruling.

The department’s Office of Civil Rights said it will examine whether the university’s use of “legacy” and donor preferences in undergraduate admissions violates the federal civil rights law after a complaint called it a discriminatory practice hurting students of color.

Separately, congressional Democrats have reintroduced legislation that would prohibit universities from participating in federal student aid programs if they use these criteria.

Here’s what to know.

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What are ‘legacy’ admissions?

The practice of more favorably viewing university applicants whose parents are alumni is known as “legacy” admission or preference.

Colleges that offer legacy admissions defend the practice, saying legacy status is one of many factors that are considered and that it helps them build lasting relations with their alumni, whose donations can make financial aid possible to other applicants.

But several studies have shown that legacy admissions overwhelmingly favor wealthy and White applicants, and critics have described the practice as reverse affirmative action – benefiting such students at the cost of applicants of color and other disadvantaged groups.

Legacy students are more likely to receive admission at 12 highly selective private American colleges, including Ivy League institutions, especially if they are from high-income families, concluded a new study published by Opportunity Insights, a research initiative based at Harvard. Eliminating legacy preferences, among other changes in admissions, would help diversify the socioeconomic backgrounds of America’s highest earners and leaders, said authors Raj Chetty, David J. Deming and John N. Friedman.

In another study, researchers concluded that a White applicant’s chances at Harvard increased several times if they were a legacy candidate.

Over a six-year period between 2009 and 2015, Harvard admitted 34 percent of the 4,644 legacy applicants from the United States that applied, court documents have shown, which was far higher than the 6 percent admission rate of non-legacy applicants.

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How are legacy admissions connected to Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling?

The Supreme Court’s June decision to bar race as a consideration for college admissions has upended how universities select their students and forced a reckoning on other admissions-process categories, such as legacy, donor status and athletic excellence.

The case brought against Harvard and the University of North Carolina by Students for Fair Admissions also shed unprecedented light onto the admissions processes at top institutions.

At Harvard, the justices noted in their ruling, information about the legacy status, athletic status, financial aid eligibility and race is disclosed to the admissions committee at the last stage of the decision-making process called the “lop,” where the statuses can become a determining factor.

Now, the Boston group Lawyers for Civil Rights has cited the affirmative action ruling in a federal complaint against Harvard’s use of legacy preferences. The recent Supreme Court decision, the complaint states, is expected to negatively impact diversity on campuses and eliminating legacy and donor preferences could help admit more students of color.

“There’s no birthright to Harvard. As the Supreme Court recently noted, ‘eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.’ There should be no way to identify who your parents are in the college application process,” Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said in a statement.

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What is the Harvard legacy admission investigation?

Soon after the Supreme Court ruling, President Biden urged education officials to examine ways to make campuses more inclusive and investigate barriers such as legacy admissions that “expand privilege.”

Now, the Education Department has opened an investigation into Harvard’s use of legacy, as well as donor, preferences to determine whether they violate federal civil rights law after a complaint filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of African Community Economic Development of New England, the Greater Boston Latino Network and the Chica Project.

The university is reviewing its admission policies following the Supreme Court ruling, officials at Harvard told The Washington Post this week.

“Our review includes examination of a range of data and information, along with learnings from Harvard’s efforts over the past decade to strengthen our ability to attract and support a diverse intellectual community that is fundamental to our pursuit of academic excellence,” Nicole Rura, a Harvard spokeswoman, said in a statement.

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Which colleges have legacy admissions?

More than 100 schools have said that alumni-applicant relationships are considered while making admissions decisions, a Washington Post analysis published in mid-June found.

Not just Harvard but all Ivy League institutions, considered some of the world’s most prestigious, give consideration to legacy status. Other leading institutions, including New York University, Georgetown University, Vassar College and Michigan State University, also follow the practice.

At Stanford University, more than 280 applicants – or about 13.5 percent – admitted in fall 2022 were children of alumni or donors, the university said. (First-generation college students were 21.5 percent of the admitted class.) In 2021, 10 percent of Princeton University’s admitted students were children of its graduates, while 22 percent were first-generation college-goers.

Many public universities including the University of California’s nine undergraduate campuses and the University of Texas at Austin do not consider legacy status. Some prominent private schools to have ended the practice in recent years are Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University.

The Supreme Court ruling has spurred other institutions. This month, private liberal arts college Wesleyan University said it would end such admissions, citing the recent affirmative action ruling as a catalyst for the decision.

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Could this be the end of legacy admissions?

Public opinion in the United States remains firmly against legacy admissions. About 75 percent of Americans oppose legacy preferences, a 2022 poll by Pew Research Center found.

The recent events might lead to a shift from legacy admissions but not entirely eliminate the practice, said Adam Nguyen, CEO of Ivy Link, a firm that coaches students on how to enter elite American universities.

“Some elite colleges say that they have a right to operate their institutions as any business would – i.e., based on policies and practices that support their institutional priorities whether those are monetary or otherwise,” he said in an email. “They’re saying that the state is encroaching on their abilities to operate as universities and eliminating legacy admissions would hurt the institutions in the long run.”

In the absence of federal legislation banning legacy admissions, the practice may continue, said Carlos Moreno, a campaign strategist and adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union. Although he thinks such preferences should end, he doesn’t see such a potential change as a panacea for racial inequities in college admissions.

“Colleges and university systems must remain committed to examining and revising existing policies to ensure every student gets a fair shot,” he said in an email, “including eliminating use of standardized test scores in admissions, increasing guaranteed financial support and developing robust middle and high school pipelines in underserved communities.”



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