America’s elite colleges are facing growing calls to end the decades-old tradition of boosting admissions for alumni’s children – a practice that critics say is rooted in racism and confers an unfair advantage on students who need it least.
Fueled by the national reckoning with racial injustice, opponents say they are gaining ground in the battle against the controversial policy of inherited preferences.
Ivy League students urge administrators to drop politics. The Yale student government took a stand against the practice in November. A recent vote by Harvard students found that 60% oppose it. Hundreds of students and alumni from 30 colleges have pledged to withhold financial donations on this.
Civil rights groups are increasingly providing support, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which is attacking inherited preferences as part of a campaign against systematic racism.
And a bill in Congress aims to eliminate the practice.
The Democrats’ proposal would ban preferences for the children of alumni or donors at colleges that receive federal money. He is being pushed by the progressive wing of the party, but has won support from some conservative activists who want university admissions to be based solely on merit.
Inherited preferences give predominantly white and wealthy inherited students an extra boost, while “leaving out millions of black and brown kids,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, DN.Y., a sponsor.
“There has been a shift in the consciousness of the country around issues of inequity and inequality,” Bowman said in an interview. “There is a real desire to right the wrongs of our past.”
In the highly scrutinized world of college admissions, it’s hard to know exactly how many legacy students are getting a boost. 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 the colleges in response to a request from The Associated Press.
On many campuses, the opposition is led by students of color and those who are first in their families to attend college. They say the legacy status is an added benefit for students who are already more likely to have access to tutoring, test prep and other help when applying for college.
Brown University student Zoe Fuad said it reinforced a “cycle of inequity” designed to serve wealthy white men.
“By perpetually giving benefits to their descendants, we ensure that those who were consistently favored continue to be favored,” said Fuad, 20, who leads a student group challenging the practice at Brown.
Many prestigious colleges champion legacy admissions, saying it helps build an alumni community and encourages donations. Officials at Harvard and other schools say heritage status is just one of many factors considered in admissions, along with grades, test scores and activities outside of school. At most, they say, it can give a small tip in favor of a student.
Yet two colleges recently ended the practice, giving naysayers hope that others will follow suit.
Amherst College in Massachusetts dropped the policy in October, saying it “inadvertently limits educational opportunities.” Johns Hopkins University announced in 2020 that it had phased out inherited preferences. Since then, the school has attracted increasing numbers of black and Hispanic students, as well as those from low-income families.
The pushback against inherited preferences is progressing amid a broader debate over equity in college admissions.
Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether colleges could consider applicant race as a way to expand diversity. The court will file lawsuits alleging that Harvard University and the University of North Carolina discriminate against Asian American applicants in favor of black and Hispanic students.
In a rare moment of bipartisan unity, the conservative strategist behind those lawsuits voiced support for Democrats’ legacy benefits bill. In a statement, Edward Blum said too many colleges are “lowering the admissions bar for children of their alumni.”
Most schools are not required to disclose the number of legacy students they enroll, and many keep it private. Of the 30 most selective colleges nationwide, only eight provided background data on the subject in response to a PA request.
At these colleges, the share of alumni in this year’s freshman class averaged 12%. The lowest share was at Rice University in Houston, where 4% of that year’s freshman class had legacy status. The University of Notre Dame said legacy students averaged 23% of the student body over the past decade.
Legacy students outnumbered black students in freshman classes at four schools: Notre Dame, Cornell, Dartmouth and the University of Southern California. At Brown, the share of heritage and black students was roughly equal.
Harvard declined to release specifics, but data released in its affirmative action trial showed family ties carried outsized weight. From 2014 to 2019, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants was 34%, compared to 6% for applicants without legacy status, according to an analysis by plaintiffs.
Critics of the practice say it contributes to the persistence of low numbers of black students at top colleges. In the racial tally following the police killing of George Floyd, hundreds of Georgetown University students signed a letter calling for an end to legacy preference, saying it “relegates qualified black students second-tier status.
Historians have traced the preference inherited from the 1920s as elite colleges sought to limit the number of Jewish students. This continued for decades at a time when the vast majority of American college students were white males.
In many schools with inherited preferences, black students were not admitted until the 1960s, said Michael Dannenberg, vice president of the Education Reform Now think tank.
“White candidates have between eight and 16 generations of ancestry to connect with the elders on,” said Dannenberg, who opposed the practice two decades ago as an aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy, the late Massachusetts Democrat. “For the vast majority of black and Latino applicants, there’s maybe a generation or two.”
On college campuses, student activists say they continue to face resistance from headteachers who champion the policy. But at a time of rising populism in the United States, colleges are unlikely to find allies in Congress and other places of power, said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank progressive in Washington.
Especially in the wake of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal, he said, it’s becoming harder for colleges to advocate for policies that benefit the wealthy.
“They are clearly vulnerable on this issue,” he said.
As a result of this scandal, Colorado became the first state in the nation to ban legacy preferences in public colleges. California lawmakers have required colleges to disclose the number of legacy students accepted.
Among campus activists, there is a burning desire to change the perception that top colleges are ivory towers for the wealthy. When Viet Andy Nguyen applied to Brown University as a low-income first-generation student, he knew he was competing against wealthier students with alumni connections. This made him wonder if Brown was really a place for people like him.
After graduating from Brown in 2017, he started the nonprofit EdMobilizer with the goal of expanding college access and ending inherited preferences. He orchestrated a donation boycott at schools across the United States, and he helps students fight the practice on dozens of campuses.
He does not lose sight of the fact that he is challenging a policy that could benefit his future children. He has faced resistance from some students of color who question why he wants to end it now, when campuses are more racially diverse than ever. But for him, the goal is to open doors for students who have been excluded, not to create “an elite bloodline of people of color.”
“My children will be fine,” he said. “They don’t need an extra bump just to be my offspring.”