US universities and colleges are under pressure to stop giving preference in admissions to "legacy" candidates - the children of alumni or major donors - in an unexpected twist in the affirmative action debate.
Most of these candidates are white, which has become a lightning rod for critics. If blacks are to lose the opportunities offered by affirmative-action programmes, so should whites.
"The legacy preference rewards students who had the most advantages to begin with," said Senator John Edwards, a candidate for president from the Democrat party.
"It is a birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy, not 21st-century American democracy," he added.
The most famous beneficiary of the legacy tradition is President George W.
Bush, who was admitted to Yale - which his father and his grandfather attended - with mediocre grades.
About 10 per cent of students at Yale, Harvard and Princeton universities are the children of alumni. At the University of Notre Dame, the proportion is 23 per cent. Eleven per cent of students starting this year at the University of Virginia are legacies, and 91 per cent of them are white.
Legacy applicants get extra points in the admissions process, much as racial minorities do under affirmative-action policies, which are being challenged by the Bush administration. The issue is before the Supreme Court.
Senator Edwards said that children of alumni "can be admitted without any preferences, and they should be. Unlike affirmative action, which I support, the legacy preference does not help overcome barriers based on race or add diversity to the classroom."
But a poll has found that most Americans agree that race should not be a consideration in university admissions, despite the fact that a majority also believes that the nation has still not eliminated racial discrimination.
The poll of 1,385 people by The Los Angeles Times found that 55 per cent approved of the Bush administration's challenge to a University of Michigan policy that gives preference to non-whites. Twenty-seven per cent disapproved. The rest had no opinion.
Even non-whites surveyed narrowly opposed race-based admissions.
Fifty-eight per cent of those polled said the nation was "not close" to eliminating discrimination against racial minorities.