Bipartisan Bill Would End College Legacy Admissions

Republican Sen. Todd Young and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine have introduced a bill to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to end legacy admissions.
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Published on January 12, 2024
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  • The bill seeks to remove a potential student's relationship with alums or donors of a university as the "determinative factor" for acceptance.
  • Faith-based institutions would not be affected by the bill.
  • Democrats introduced a bill in early 2022 to end legacy admissions, but the bill has not moved since.

A Republican U.S. senator from Indiana and a Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia are working together to end legacy admissions in college.

Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., at the end of last year introduced the Merit-Based Educational Reforms and Institutional Transparency Act (MERIT Act) to remove legacy admissions in the U.S.

Legacy admissions are college admissions preferences given to relatives of alums and donors of a college. This is the second attempt in the last two years to impact legacy admissions at the national level.

In early 2022, nine Democratic lawmakers introduced the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, which would decline federal aid to institutions giving preference to legacy applicants. The bill has not moved since.

"America is a land of opportunity, not a land of aristocracy," Young said in a press release. "Legacy admissions restrict opportunities for many bright and talented young Americans and provide unmerited advantage to the most connected individuals in our society. Our bill will end legacy preferences in the admissions process and promote upward mobility for Americans of all backgrounds."

The bill amends language from the Higher Education Act of 1965 to remove a potential student's relationship with alums or donors as the "determinative factor." However, the bill ensures that students with demonstrated interest can have equal access regardless of alum or donor affiliation.

Faith-based institutions are not affected by the bill.

The bill also would enact a partnership with the National Student Clearinghouse to collect data on the impacts of removing legacy admissions.

"A student's acceptance into a college should not hinge on whether their parents attended that school or donated a large sum of money," Kaine said in the press release.

"This legislation would help bring more fairness to the higher education admissions process, and ensure that first-generation and low-income students are not put at a disadvantage because of their parents' educational histories or incomes."

States, Institutions, and Student Advocates Challenge Legacy Admissions

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-based preferences in college admissions, lawmakers and institutions have turned to legacy admissions to address equity in higher education.

Massachusetts legislators last year introduced a bill that fines public and private Massachusetts colleges for keeping legacy admissions and early decision application programs. Any fines would go to a fund supporting the state's community colleges.

Individual institutions are also increasingly ditching legacy admissions as students say they don't think the practice is fair.

According to a recent BestColleges survey, only 30% of students think legacy admissions practices are fair. Nearly half (46%) of students said legacy admissions may have hurt their chances of getting into their preferred college.

Wesleyan University, Carleton College, and Virginia Tech are among the institutions that have formally announced the end of legacy admissions. Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh's 2022-2023 Common Data Sets indicated for the first time that alum relation is "not considered" in first-time, first-year admissions.

Meanwhile, student advocacy groups are also challenging legacy admissions, with the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network filing a federal civil rights complaint against Harvard University in July.

The lawsuit challenges Harvard's "discriminatory practice of giving preferential treatment in the admissions process to applicants with familial ties to wealthy donors and alumni ('legacy applicants')."

"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 Lawyers for Civil Rights, in a statement. "This preferential treatment overwhelmingly goes to white applicants and harms efforts to diversify."