Maryland House Passes Bill Banning Legacy Admissions

In the wake of the Supreme Court's ban on affirmative action, the backlash against legacy admissions intensifies.
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Updated on May 3, 2024
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  • The Maryland House of Delegates passed a bill aiming to ban legacy admissions at public and private colleges.
  • Maryland Gov. Wes Moore signed the bill into law on April 25, making Maryland the third state to ban legacy admissions preferences.
  • Criticism of legacy policies has intensified following the U.S. Supreme Court's ban on race-conscious admissions.
  • Nationwide, several public and private colleges have already eliminated legacy preferences.

On Feb. 15, the Maryland House of Delegates passed a bill aiming to ban legacy admissions at the state's colleges and universities.

The House voted 133-4 to advance the bill, which now moves to the Maryland Senate. If ratified, the bill would take effect July 1.

With this legislation, Delegate Jazz Lewis, the bill's sponsor tweeted, we end an unfair practice that benefits a select number of students over those less privileged and connected.

According to The Daily Record, a Maryland publication, the bill provides applicants who believe they've been denied admission in favor of a legacy student legal grounds to file suit.

All public institutions of higher education in the state would fall subject to the law if passed, as would private universities receiving state funding.

The bill also prohibits donor preferences in college admissions.

As the bill now goes to the Senate for consideration, at least one member of that body questions its wisdom. Malcolm Augustine, Senate president pro tem, told The Daily Record the legislation might disadvantage minorities who might otherwise take advantage of legacy preferences.

There were a number of formerly disenfranchised groups — African Americans, Latinos — who were able to go to college, who now have children who are legacies, he said. It does take multiple generations to close things like the wealth gap.

He's not alone in his conviction that removing legacy preferences constitutes a lost opportunity for minority students. In a 2013 Supreme Court hearing, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is Puerto Rican, disagreed that banning legacy policies is race-neutral.

They finally have children, and you're going [to] do away [with] that preference for them? Sotomayor said. It seems the goalposts keep changing every few years for minorities.

Indeed, a 2023 Yale Daily News article points out that the parents of today's Ivy League applicants graduated sometime between 1980 and 2000, a span during which minority representation at those institutions rose from 15.8% to 34.2%.

Legacy Bans Gain Momentum Following SCOTUS Decision

Augustine's demurral also comes as some minority students face higher hurdles following last June's Supreme Court decision banning race-conscious admissions.

In January, the Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan bill seeking to end legacy admissions at the commonwealth's public colleges and universities. It was subsequently passed in the Virginia House and is likely to be signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Lawmakers in Connecticut are considering a bill to eliminate legacy preferences in the Nutmeg State, as are legislators in New York.

And more than a dozen Massachusetts legislators want to eliminate legacy admissions, donor preferences, and binding early decision programs at all the commonwealth's colleges and universities.

Legacy admissions has been in the legislative crosshairs for years, though the SCOTUS ban on affirmative action accelerated efforts to eliminate any preferential treatment of students who need it least and to level the playing field in the zero-sum world of college admissions.

At the federal level, legacy bills in the House and Senate are under consideration, and the Education Department is investigating Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania to determine if their legacy policies constitute racial discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Almost 70% of Harvard's donor and legacy applicants are white, notes the complaint against the university, and legacy applicants are nearly six times more likely to be admitted than non-legacies.

At Penn, upwards of one-quarter of admitted students are legacies.

Among public institutions, 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 announced a similar intent following the SCOTUS decision.

And among privates, where such preferences have long been ingrained in admissions policies, Amherst College announced in 2021 that it would no longer favor legacies, who, at the time, accounted for about 11% of each entering class.

Wesleyan University jettisoned legacy preferences following the SCOTUS decision, leaving behind a tradition that represented a sign of unfairness to the outside world, its president, Michael Roth, told The New York Times.

Johns Hopkins University, a Maryland institution, abandoned its legacy policy in 2014.

Legacy preference is immobility written as policy, preserving for children the same advantages enjoyed by their parents, Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It embodies in stark and indefensible terms inherited privilege in higher education and has compromised college and university admissions for decades. Moreover, it has drained the public trust in colleges and universities at a moment when the public is seething with rage at the seeming illusion of the meritocratic ideal and widening inequality.

For many legislators, including those in the Maryland House, that rage only intensified after the Supreme Court ended 60 years of affirmative action practices and, in the process, eliminated any leg up minority students might have in the competitive college admissions sweepstakes.

Or did it? Today's minority applicants can continue to reveal their racial and ethnic status through essays that college officials can consider in a holistic admissions process. How much, if at all, do those attributes matter, and do they give any applicants an advantage? It's difficult to determine.

The same goes for legacy preferences. If Maryland, among other states, bans legacy preferences, that doesn't mean legacies won't apply and get admitted, theoretically absent any consideration of their legacy status.

An application might not specifically ask students if a parent attended, but what if a student's essay casually mentions that his father attended and speaks highly of his experience? That information might not “count,” but it can't be unlearned.

In states where legacy practices are banned, we might expect such numbers to diminish somewhat, but they'll never reach zero.

And as for significant donors, universities absolutely know familial relationships with the institution. There's often too much intergenerational wealth at stake not to.

These legislative measures do appear well-meaning, assuming they represent more than just political posturing, but in practice, they might not accomplish much, especially at public universities. As of 2018, only 6% of admissions directors at public colleges nationwide claimed to consider legacy status.

Still, there's something unseemly about a long-standing practice favoring students by birthright, especially in a climate where heritage now matters less for some.

Update: Maryland Bans Legacy Admissions

On April 5, the state Senate approved the bill by a vote of 37-7, with three absences. And on April 25, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore also approved it, signing it into law as of July 1.

Maryland thus becomes the third state to ban legacy preferences, following Colorado and Virginia, and the first to ban the practice at both public and private universities.