Yale Opposes State Ban on Legacy Admissions

Can a state government tell private universities whom they can and can't admit?
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Updated on May 3, 2024
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  • A Connecticut bill would have banned legacy admissions at the state's public and private colleges and universities.
  • Lawmakers ultimately abandoned the ban and instead passed a bill requiring colleges that use legacy admissions to report admissions data.
  • Yale University opposed the legislation, arguing it infringes on academic freedom.
  • Legacy admissions bans have gained traction since the Supreme Court's ban on affirmative action.

Connecticut legislators are poised to make history, but Yale University doesn't want them to.

In February, the state's General Assembly proposed SB 203, a bill banning legacy admissions at colleges and universities. If it passes, Connecticut would become the first state to prohibit legacy practices at both public and private institutions.

Yale doesn't think it's a good idea.

Legacy Ban Revived Following SCOTUS Decision

Were this measure to pass, Connecticut would become the third state to ban legacy admissions, following Colorado, which enacted its legislation in 2021, and Virginia, which passed its law last month.

In both cases, the prohibition pertains only to public colleges and universities. Connecticut's bill includes private colleges as well.

According to one analysis, approximately a quarter of Connecticut's four-year colleges employ legacy preferences.

This isn't the first time Connecticut has taken a swing at legacy admissions. Two years ago, the General Assembly proposed HB 5034, which failed to pass.

But the higher education landscape has changed since then thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's ban on race-conscious admissions. Now any barrier to diversity faces intensified scrutiny.

Legacy admissions fall into that category. Studies have shown that legacy preferences predominantly favor wealthy, white students and, in the zero-sum game of college admissions, correspondingly disadvantage low-income applicants and people of color.

I think that the argument to ban legacy admissions is much stronger after the Supreme Court decision, state Sen. Derek Slap, who co-chairs the Connecticut Legislature's Higher Education Committee, told the Yale Daily News, the student newspaper. A lot of members of the committee are very interested in this topic and fairness in college admissions.

State Rep. Dominique Johnson told the Daily News she'd like to see the bill extended to include donor status. Legislation passed in February by the Maryland House of Delegates features such a provision, as does a similar proposal in California.

The New York State Senate is weighing a bill that would ban legacy admissions and early decision programs, which also have been shown to favor students already advantaged in the admissions process.

And Massachusetts legislators seek to eradicate legacy admissions, early decision programs, and donor preferences.

Can a state government dictate admissions policies at private universities? It can, civil rights attorney Alex Taubes told the Daily News. The legislature can regulate private institutions based on a constitutional theory known as police power.

This power allows the state to impose certain requirements on private institutions to ensure they contribute positively to the state's goals for its education system and the overall well-being of its residents, Taubes explained. When it comes to education, states have a particular interest in ensuring that institutions serve the public good, as education is closely linked to economic development, civic participation, and social equity.

Connecticut's bill now moves to the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee and, if passed, will continue to the state Senate. State Rep. Gary Turco told the Daily News he believes the committee will pass the bill but thinks it could face opposition in the Senate because private universities hold a lot of weight in the state.

Yale Claims Threats to Academic Freedom

No private university in the state carries more weight than Yale, which seeks to retain its right to admit legacies. In recent years, legacies have constituted 11-14% of Yale's entering classes.

In a Feb. 29 public hearing held over Zoom, Yale joined seven other Connecticut colleges and universities to testify before the Legislature. Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale's dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, offered the university's statement of opposition.

Just as every Connecticut college or university teaches different classes in different ways in fulfillment of its educational mission, each institution should likewise be allowed to assemble a student body that promotes its educational goals, he said.

A university may make a voluntary decision to forgo consideration of legacy status in the application process, but a Connecticut state law dictating that decision for independent colleges and universities would be unprecedented and would invite future legislatures to impose their own views on who should be admitted in ways that threaten academic freedom.

At the same time, Yale students have voiced their support for the bill.

We emphasize that the archaic practice of granting advantages in the application process on the basis of familial ties is antithetical to Yale's commitment to meritocratic admissions, the Yale College Council wrote in a statement.

Those historically granted the opportunity to form such connections were overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and Protestant, due to the inaccessibility of higher education.

Quinlan added that rather than banning legacy admissions, the state should increase funding for efforts that promote access for first-generation and low-income students.

Yale opposed the Legislature's previous attempt to ban legacy admissions, in 2022. At the time, Quinlan argued that the state should not dictate who is admitted to college.

The University of Connecticut joined Yale in opposing the 2022 bill but remains neutral on the current proposal. Connecticut College, Sacred Heart University, and Fairfield University, all private institutions, also opposed the 2022 legislation.

Today, those private institutions are backed by the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges (CCIC), an association that represents the interests of the 15 private colleges in the state.

The organization opposes the concept of state legislation prohibiting independent colleges in Connecticut from giving preference to an applicant for admission to such institution on the basis of the applicant's familial relationship to a person who has graduated from such institution, says a statement shared with BestColleges by Jennifer Widness, the group's president.

Collectively, the statement continues, our membership agrees that the determination to consider legacy or not should remain at the institutional level.

What's more, banning legacy admissions, the CCIC notes, will not move the needle on promoting equity and access in postsecondary education.

Similarly, Yale President Peter Salovey said last year that if the university didn't favor legacy applicants, those students would be replaced by legacies of other elite colleges, not by students with more disadvantaged backgrounds.

We are trying to ask, Is [legacy admissions] getting in the way of diversifying our applicant pool, or is it not? he said. And then we will make the decision on the basis of that, rather than what the political pressure is. But the political pressure is not completely irrelevant.

Yale Already Reviewing Legacy Policy

Salovey's remarks came as Yale began internal deliberations about its legacy policies.

Everything is up for discussion, Salovey said at the time.

Yet the university may not have the final say after all. The state's legislators could force its hand.

Meanwhile, about 25 miles north, Wesleyan University has already stopped favoring legacies in its admissions decisions. In July, soon after the SCOTUS decision, the university decided to no longer give legacy applicants a bump in the admissions process.

The practice, Wesleyan President Michael Roth told The New York Times, is a sign of unfairness to the outside world.

State Rep. Turco agrees. The Daily News says Turco believes the message the bill might send about fairness would be as important as any practical impact on the universities' diversity.

For institutions where legacies constitute a relatively insignificant percentage of the incoming class, the bill, should it pass, might carry only symbolic meaning.

But at Yale, where intergenerational traditions have dominated the culture for centuries and have fueled philanthropy, the law might have far more material implications.

Update: Connecticut General Assembly Leaves Legacy Admissions In Place

On April 30, the state Senate passed an amended version of the bill requiring colleges that use legacy admissions to report data on the practice each year to lawmakers. The revised bill will advance to the House, which has until May 8 to approve it.

Slap told CT Insider that results from the data will help lawmakers determine whether or not to pursue a bill banning legacy admissions next year.

"This bill really aims to help us get more information so the next legislature … can look at the information and decide what to do," he said. "It does not abolish this practice. It simply is a reporting requirement."