Senators Urge Ban on Legacy Admissions

Three senators exhort Education Secretary Cardona to end admissions preferences for legacies, but will the Biden Administration act on their recommendations?
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on August 31, 2023
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  • Three U.S. Senators sent a letter to Secretary Cardona urging the Education Department to help end legacy admissions.
  • Public scrutiny of this practice has increased since the Supreme Court's June ban on race-conscious admissions.
  • The letter references a pending lawsuit against Harvard University challenging its preferences for legacy and donor applicants.
  • The senators outline various ways the Education Department could address legacy admissions, though the recommendations are somewhat vague.

Three prominent U.S. Senators have joined the crusade to ban legacy admissions, urging the Department of Education (ED) to cut federal funding to universities that continue the practice.

Will the weight of the Senate move the needle on this increasingly contentious issue?

Recommendation Follows Supreme Court Ban on Affirmative Action

In an Aug. 14 letter to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) call the Supreme Court's recent decision to ban race-conscious admissions "a blow against diversity in higher education" that keeps intact "harmful practices that advantage the wealthy and well-connected."

The lawmakers call on Cardona and the ED to "mitigate the impact" of the SCOTUS decision by using its "advisory and enforcement authority" to end preferential treatment for children of alumni (legacies) and donors. Doing so would "ensure a more even playing field for students applying to college."

Cardona himself has spoken openly about his disapproval of legacy admissions practices.

Specifically, the senators recommend the ED take the following measures:

  • Provide resources to universities to support their transitions away from legacy and donor preferences.
  • Aggressively pursue investigations of complaints regarding legacy and donor preferences and other admissions policies that provide preferential treatment.
  • Refuse to provide federal funding to universities that continue to prefer legacy and donor applicants to disproportionately benefit affluent white students.
  • Commission a report on the detrimental effects of legacy admissions and donor preferences.

The letter also references the subsequently published guidelines issued by the Biden Administration for how universities can consider race in admissions following the court's ruling.

While stopping short of requiring universities to discontinue legacy admissions, as the senators would prefer, the administration's guidelines did offer a subtle nudge in that direction.

"Nothing in the decision prevents an institution from determining whether preferences for legacy students or children of donors … run counter to efforts to promote equal opportunities for all students in the context of college admissions," the document noted.

Harvard's Legacy Preferences Challenged in Lawsuit

In their missive to Secretary Cardona, the three senators discuss the pending lawsuit against Harvard University, one of two institutions, along with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at the center of the Supreme Court affirmative action case.

Following the SCOTUS decision, three groups — the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network — filed a federal civil rights complaint against Harvard challenging its "discriminatory practice" of favoring legacies and children of wealthy donors.

The complaint, filed with the ED's Office for Civil Rights by Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), alleges the practice violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Harvard's practice of giving a leg-up to the children of wealthy donors and alumni — who have done nothing to deserve it — must end," said Michael Kippins, a litigation fellow at LCR, in a statement. "This preferential treatment overwhelmingly goes to white applicants and harms efforts to diversify."

According to the complaint, almost 70% of Harvard's donor and legacy applicants are white. Compared to other applicants, children of donors are nearly seven times more likely to be admitted, while legacies are nearly six times more likely.

For the classes of 2014-2019, Harvard legacies were admitted at a rate of 33.6%, compared to 5.9% for non-legacies. About 28% of Harvard's class of 2019 were legacies.

More broadly, across the so-called "Ivy Plus" colleges — the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke, MIT, and the University of Chicago — legacies are admitted at higher rates than non-legacies with similar standardized test scores, an advantage that increases with family wealth.

A recent report from Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based research group, revealed that alumni children from families in the 90th income percentile are four times more likely to be admitted, while those in the 99th percentile are eight times more likely to gain admission.

"Why are we rewarding children for privileges and advantages accrued by prior generations?" Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights and an attorney representing the plaintiffs, asked in a CNN article.

On the heels of the Harvard complaint, the ED's Office of Civil Rights became involved, opening an investigation into the university's legacy practices that could result in a settlement or a legal battle similar to what the university just endured.

Growing Movement to Abolish Legacy Admissions

This exhortation from Senators Markey, Sanders, and Warren represents the latest effort to eradicate legacy — and, by association, donor — preferences, a bipartisan campaign that had long been percolating and gained steam following the SCOTUS decision.

Civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP have challenged legacy practices, as have think tanks and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

At the state level, Colorado banned legacy admissions in 2021, and legislation aimed at both public and private colleges was subsequently introduced in New York. Connecticut considered a similar bill, as did Massachusetts earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the University of California system, the University of Georgia, and Texas A&M University have all long since abandoned the practice, and the University of Minnesota recently announced a similar intent following the SCOTUS decision.

Among private colleges, two years ago Amherst College announced it would no longer favor legacies, who, at the time, accounted for about 11% of each entering class. Amherst's decision echoed a similar move by Johns Hopkins University, which jettisoned legacy admissions in 2014.

Last month Wesleyan University joined the fray, leaving behind a tradition that represented "a sign of unfairness to the outside world," its president, Michael Roth, told The New York Times.

Whether the senators succeed in prompting Secretary Cardona to take action remains to be seen. Their recommendations are rather vague, leaving the EDEducation Department to sort out the particulars.

What kinds of "resources" do universities need to jettison legacy admissions? How might the department "aggressively pursue investigations of complaints" stemming from legacy preferences? Proving harm can be tricky, especially in the context of holistic admissions decisions where all factors, including legacy status, get churned in a mixing bowl, rendering each aspect of a student's profile an immeasurable yet essential component of the application.

Perhaps a report on the "detrimental effects of legacy admissions and donor preferences" could prove useful, relying on the notion that college admissions is a zero-sum game in which every spot taken means one less for everyone else. The court's affirmative action ruling certainly bought into that argument.

Yet any findings would merely reinforce a narrative already being hotly discussed and debated in the media, in Congress, in the White House, and within higher education itself. This narrative has a "do the right thing" undertone that most elites have thus far failed to act on, but that day might soon come.