After affirmative action, are legacy admissions next?

The case against preference for children of alumni and donors

legacy admissions
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Affirmative action is over in college admissions. Are legacy admissions next? After the Supreme Court's ruling, the Harvard Crimson reported, officials across the political spectrum are taking aim at college selection preferences that give a leg up to children of alumni and big donors. Leading the way: President Biden. On Thursday, he ordered the Department of Education to "analyze" university "practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity."

The effort may be bipartisan. The Hill reported that at least one Republican presidential candidate joined Biden's call. "I think the question is how do you continue to create a culture where education is the goal for every single part of our community?" said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). He said U.S. leaders should "make sure that all admissions are based on academic scores, and not just eliminating affirmative action, but let's look at the legacy programs."

Legacy admissions are "the far more pervasive form of elite affirmative action," Murtaza Hussain wrote for The Intercept. Politico reported that colleges and universities will come under pressure to end legacies as part of a broader effort to ensure their student bodies remain diverse. "There are paths forward to ensure racial equity in higher education," said David Hinojosa, an attorney who opposed the affirmative action case.

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What are commentators saying?

Legacy admissions "have always been unethical, but now they're untenable," James S. Murphy wrote at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Eliminating legacies "will not offset the harm that will be done to campus diversity" by the Supreme Court ruling, but it's also an "obvious and easy response." Elite universities at the heart of the affirmative action debate admit less than a quarter of applicants, but — at Harvard, at least — legacy applicants are five times as likely as other students to gain admission. And that inevitably has a racial dimension: "Legacy admissions effectively operate as affirmative action for the white and wealthy."

"Let the very best and brightest students thrive on the campus," Robby Soave wrote for Reason. State schools, which are subsidized by taxpayers, in particular have no reason "to prefer applicants who satisfy academically irrelevant criteria." That includes legacies. Affirmative action opponents can join the effort to end preferences for the kids of alumni. Legacy admissions are "unfair and should be abolished."

"Ending legacy admissions is the next logical step," Tom Joyce wrote for the Washington Examiner. Colorado already ended legacy admissions in 2021, and other states should follow that example. Why? Because connected students who otherwise wouldn't pass muster for admission shouldn't be put in a position where they're more likely to fail. The point here is to make college admissions more meritocratic, and legacy admissions fail that test: "Colleges should admit the best, the brightest, and the hardest-working, not just those whose families give schools legal bribes."

What's next

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) plan to reintroduce the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, MarketWatch reported. The bill would ban universities that receive federal funds from using legacy admissions, although there would be waivers for colleges that show legacies benefit "historically underrepresented students." The children of donors and alumni "are the last people who need an extra leg up in the complicated and competitive college admissions process," Merkley said.

But colleges themselves are divided over whether to end legacy admissions, PBS NewsHour reported. Vincent Price, the president of Duke University, last year defended legacies. "We are an institution that was made in a family, the Duke family. We bear the name of that family. We represent family. We talk about family," he said. "So how does that translate into the way we behave? The idea that you would ban legacy admissions or ban any particular factor as a consideration is troublesome."

Politico reported that Edward Blum, the conservative strategist who spearheaded the lawsuit against affirmative action, favors ending legacy admissions. "The elimination of these preferences is long overdue," he said. But you won't see him in court on the issue. Blum told a press conference that "legacy preferences are not actionable in court." Any federal action against legacy admissions, then, will have to come from Congress — and not the Supreme Court.

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.