Will Legacy Admissions End Along With Affirmative Action?

The court of public opinion has already rendered its verdict, declaring elite colleges guilty of perpetuating a practice that disadvantages the already disadvantaged.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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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...
Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • A new lawsuit claims Harvard University discriminates against minority students by favoring legacy applicants.
  • The Education Department has become involved, launching its own investigation into Harvard's legacy preferences.
  • The recent Supreme Court decision to ban race-conscious admissions has reinvigorated debates around legacy admissions.
  • We might soon see more universities abandon legacy preferences in the face of growing public pressure.

Harvard is being sued … again. This time, the suit involves legacy admissions, the university's policy of favoring children of alumni.

On the heels of this complaint, the Education Department just launched a federal civil rights investigation into Harvard's legacy admissions practices.

A distinctly American phenomenon, legacy preferences have come under fire in recent years, and opposition has ratcheted up a notch in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to ban race-conscious admissions.

Has the time finally come to end this controversial tradition at Harvard and across higher education?

Lawsuit Challenges Harvard's Legacy Preferences

Three groups — the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network — have filed a federal civil rights complaint against Harvard challenging its "discriminatory practice of giving preferential treatment in the admissions process to applicants with familial ties to wealthy donors and alumni ('legacy applicants')."

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education'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."

And now the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights has become involved, opening an investigation into Harvard's legacy practices that could result in a settlement or a legal battle similar to what the university just endured.

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 new report from Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based research group, reveals 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.

The suit comes on the heels of the Supreme Court's decision to ban race-conscious admissions. Given the racial overtones of legacy preferences, the practice was mentioned frequently in oral arguments for both the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases and in the court's decision.

What's more, Students for Fair Admissions mentioned legacy admissions specifically in its complaint against Harvard. The plaintiffs argued that legacy preferences, along with early admission programs, "operate to the disadvantage of minority applicants."

The court's majority opinion did address legacy admissions in the context of Harvard's "lop list," the final stage of the admissions process when considerations of legacy status, recruited athlete status, financial aid eligibility, and race are taken into account to make final decisions on applicants. Only race was lopped off the lop list, leaving legacies, among others, intact.

Now that the court's ban on affirmative action will make diversity a more elusive goal among selective universities, practices such as legacy admissions that favor majority groups face enhanced scrutiny.

"Particularly in light of last week's decision from the Supreme Court," Kippins said, "it is imperative that the federal government act now to eliminate this unfair barrier that systematically disadvantages students of color."

Separating Donor and Legacy Preferences

The complaint against Harvard conflates legacy and donor preferences, suggesting they're inextricably linked. But are they?

In an Atlantic article, Michael Dannenberg, of the think tank Education Reform Now, said "colleges have defended the legacy preference by saying it's necessary for fundraising," though added that, as a fundraising tool, legacy admissions "isn't very precise."

Legacies, he points out, include children whose parents have never given and, presumably, may not even be potential donors.

In fact, one study found "no statistically significant evidence of a casual relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities" after evaluating data between 1998 and 2008.

Legacy preference policies, the study concluded, "do not purport to reward alumni donations with a greater chance of acceptance; they purport to give a greater chance of acceptance to all alumni, regardless of whether they donate."

Mickey Munley, a higher education consultant and former fundraiser, agrees.

"I'm not convinced that anybody could prove to you that those people with legacy admissions donate solely [because of a] legacy admission," he told The Atlantic.

To be sure, "development admits" also receive careful consideration and, in some cases, preferential treatment. Stanford University offers a candid articulation of its policies, carefully separating legacies and donors into distinct, while sometimes overlapping, categories.

While the university does recognize legacy status, it doesn't specifically set aside applications from donors, though an applicant's file "may contain a notation about their family's giving." In many cases, the university clarifies, parents are donors and alumni.

Among its class of 2023, 16.2% were legacies and another 1.5% were donors' kids with no legacy status.

If legacy preferences aren't necessarily tied to donations, then why favor legacies? In a word, loyalty.

Harvard's 2017 report on "race-neutral alternatives" argued legacy preferences help to "cement strong bonds between the university and its alumni," keeping graduates engaged with the institution for a lifetime, including taking an active role in the admissions process as alumni interviewers.

Mitchell Stevens, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, told The Atlantic colleges aim to foster "clanlike" emotional connections with graduates not only for fundraising purposes but also to build strong alumni networks that pay career dividends.

Yes, there's some correlation between legacies and philanthropy, but these admissions cases often present themselves independently of one another. Still, the Harvard complaint considers them necessarily commingled.

"Your family's last name and the size of your bank account are not a measure of merit," Espinoza-Madrigal said in LCR's statement, "and should have no bearing on the college admissions process."

Legacy Admissions Policies Face Mounting Backlash

The LCR complaint encapsulates growing public opinion on legacy admissions, a firestorm that has only intensified following the Supreme Court's ban on race-conscious admissions.

Considering college admissions a zero-sum game — as the majority SCOTUS opinion argued — then every seat taken by legacy admits, who skew white, means fewer opportunities to enroll a more diverse class, a challenge exacerbated by the court's ruling on affirmative action. (A similar argument can be made for athletic recruits at elite universities, but that's a topic for another time.)

Legacy admissions has been in the crosshairs for years. Viet Nguyen, a 2017 Brown University graduate, started Leave Your Legacy, a grassroots effort to persuade colleges to abandon this tradition.

Through the organization's website (it's now called EdMobilizer), students and alumni can email their alma maters and threaten to withhold donations until the institutions discontinue legacy preferences. Hundreds of people across some 30 colleges already have joined the cause.

At Harvard, which has become ground zero for the legacy debate, 60% of its students oppose the practice.

Civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP continue to challenge legacy practices, as are some 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. In fact, nationwide, only 6% of admissions directors at public colleges in 2018 claimed to consider legacy status.

At the same time, 42% of private schools had legacy preferences that same year. But even among privates, the move toward abandoning legacy admissions has gained steam.

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.

In the wake of the SCOTUS decision banning affirmative action, Wesleyan University has 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.

Hopkins' president, Ronald J. Daniels, a Canadian transplant for whom legacy preferences were completely foreign and rather distasteful, urged higher education in 2021 to follow his university's lead at "a moment when the public is seething with rage at the seeming illusion of the meritocratic ideal and widening inequality."

We're now in a moment when those feelings have intensified.

What Does the Immediate Future Hold for Legacy Admissions?

For the time being, legacy admissions remains firmly entrenched at most elite private universities. Should Harvard lose this case, it could have ripple effects across that tier of universities and beyond.

Recent rumblings at the University of Pennsylvania suggest the Ivy League school is inching away from legacy preferences. Such a move would be significant for an institution where as many as a quarter of the students admitted during Early Decision are legacies. And it would have symbolic value, perhaps becoming the first domino to tip others in that direction.

It's not like elite institutions can't thrive absent legacy admissions. Studies have shown legacies have roughly the same academic qualifications as non-legacies and perform similarly once enrolled, so, as a group, they don't raise a school's academic profile.

Pomona College doesn't weigh legacy status, nor does the California Institute of Technology or its rival, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which professes to be "meritocratic to its cultural core." All three seem to be faring just fine.

The only rationale for clinging to a century-old tradition — which, by the way, began as a strategy for limiting the growing presence of Jewish students in the Ivy League — is that it builds alumni loyalty, strengthening intergenerational bonds with alma maters and perhaps fostering a culture of philanthropy in the process.

It now appears its days may be numbered. Five years ago, Dannenberg, of Education Reform Now, noted that "[m]ore white students are admitted to top 10 universities under an alumni preference bonus than the total number of Black and Latinx students admitted under affirmative action policies."

Fast forward to today, when these students can no longer benefit from any affirmative action consideration. The playing field has become more uneven.

Regardless of the outcome of this latest litigious shot across Harvard's bow, we might expect more elite colleges to abandon legacy admissions in the face of intensifying public scrutiny. Once a university proclaims its new position, that of course doesn't necessarily mean thumbs won't land ever so gently on the scale when applications from alumni children come before committees, especially if sizable donations are in the offing.

But for university administrators struggling to conceive of ways to ensure student diversity in the wake of SCOTUS' ruling, legacy admissions remains one more hurdle that suddenly seems not only expendable but also socially tone-deaf and morally repugnant.