Democrats Propose Bill to End Legacy Admissions

The Fair College Admissions for Students Act would bar colleges that receive federal aid from giving admissions preference to legacy applicants.

February 4, 2022 · Updated on February 4, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
Democrats Propose Bill to End Legacy Admissions
Higher Ed Policy
Photo by Anna Moneymaker / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images

  • This is the first time federal legislation has sought to end legacy preference in college admissions.
  • The proposal includes an exception for some minority-serving institutions.
  • Some prestigious schools have stopped legacy admissions voluntarily in recent years.

A group of nine Democratic lawmakers say it’s time to end legacy admissions in America.

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York introduced Wednesday the Fair College Admissions for Students Act. The bill would bar colleges and universities that participate in federal student aid programs from giving admissions preferences to children of alumni and donors.

“All students deserve an equitable opportunity to gain admission to institutions of higher education, but students whose parents didn’t attend or donate to a university are often overlooked in the admissions process," Bowman said in a statement.

Legacy admissions “disproportionately benefits rich, white, and connected students, and has antisemitic and anti-immigrant roots,” Bowman said. The practice “also creates another systemic barrier to accessing higher education for low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students.”

The Fair College Admissions for Students Act would end this practice of admissions preferences — with some exceptions for:

  • Historically Black colleges and universities
  • Tribal colleges or universities
  • Other minority-serving institutions

According to a joint statement from Merkley and Bowman, qualifying institutions seeking to practice legacy admissions would have to demonstrate how these admissions preferences are in the "best interest" of students from historically excluded groups.

This proposed legislation shows how progressive Democrats are approaching college admissions, one of the top issues in Washington, D.C. for 2022.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Jan. 24 that it would hear a case that could strike down affirmative action in college admissions. Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit filed at the beginning of the year alleges that 16 private universities violated federal antitrust laws.

Opponents of legacy admissions say the practice benefits wealthy, white, connected students above low-income applicants and those from historically excluded groups.

Some research supports this view. For example, a 2019 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 70% of Harvard University's legacy applicants are white. Of Harvard's applicants who are not legacies, athletes, children of faculty, or on a dean's list, only 40% are white.

Still, many of the nation's most prestigious institutions consider family enrollment history during admissions. According to Spark Admissions, these schools include Harvard, Princeton University, Yale University, Stanford University, and dozens of others.

A few high-profile schools have gotten rid of the practice in recent years. John Hopkins University ended legacy admissions in 2014. The school's president Ronald Daniels wrote in early 2020 that the move helped increase the number of Pell Grant-eligible students in the school's first-year class and lower the percentage with a legacy connection.

The Fair College Admissions for Students Act is the first legacy admissions bill proposed at the federal level. On the state level, Colorado's legislature banned public schools from practicing legacy admissions in 2021.

The joint statement from Merkley and Bowman added that 15 organizations have already voiced support for the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, New America, and the Institute for College Access and Success.