No More Legacy Admissions at Colleges?

It's the new fight over campus equality
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 13, 2022 10:45 AM CST
New Fight on Campuses: Legacy Admissions
Brown University student Zoe Fuad of Spring, Texas, on the campus in Providence, R.I. “By perpetually giving advantages to their descendants, we’re ensuring that those who were systemically favored continue to be favored,” says Fuad, 20, who leads a student group challenging the practice.   (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

America’s elite colleges are facing growing calls to end the decades-old tradition of giving an admissions boost to the children of alumni—a practice that critics say is rooted in racism and bestows an unfair advantage to students who need it least, per the AP. Fueled by the national reckoning with racial injustice, opponents say they are gaining momentum in the battle over the contentious policy of legacy preferences. For example, Ivy League students are pressing administrators to abandon the policy. Yale’s student government took a stance against the practice in November. A recent vote of Harvard students found that 60% oppose it.

What's more, hundreds of students and alumni across 30 colleges have promised to withhold financial donations over the issue. Civil rights groups are increasingly adding their support, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which is tackling legacy preferences as part of a campaign against systematic racism. And a bill in Congress aims to eliminate the practice. The proposal from Democrats would outlaw preferences for children of alumni or donors at colleges that receive federal money. It’s being pushed by the party’s progressive wing but has gained support from some conservative activists who want college admissions to be based on merit alone.

In the heavily guarded world of college admissions, it's hard to know exactly how many legacy students get a nudge. But at some of the most selective colleges, students with family ties make up 10% to 20% of the latest incoming class, according to data released by colleges in response to an AP request. On many campuses, the opposition is being led by students of color and those who are the first in their families to attend college. They say legacy status is one more advantage for students who are already more likely to have access to tutoring, test prep, and other help applying to college.

Many prestigious colleges defend legacy admissions, saying it helps build an alumni community and encourages donations. Officials at Harvard and other schools argue that legacy status is just one of many factors considered in admissions, along with grades, test scores, and pursuits outside school. At most, they say, it can provide a slight tip in a student’s favor. Historians have traced legacy preference to the 1920s as elite colleges sought to limit the number of Jewish students. It continued for decades at a time when the vast majority of college students in the US were white men. (Click to read more.)

(Read more college admissions stories.)

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