State lawmakers launch push to end legacy admissions in US

With little movement at federal level, local lawmakers test long-shot strategies to stop universities giving children of alumni a foot in the door

March 25, 2024
A crossing guard stops traffic as the school day ends in Cutler, California to illustrate State lawmakers launch push to end legacy admissions in US
Source: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Lawmakers in several US states, growing frustrated with the persistence of legacy admissions in higher education, are moving forward with legislation that attempts to ban the practice.

The idea is being pursued by Democrats in at least three politically liberal north-eastern states with elite institutions: Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. If any succeeds, it would become the first state to outlaw the practice of giving admissions advantages to children of alumni at both public and private institutions.

“There is no debate here,” James Murphy, the director of career pathways and post-secondary policy at the advocacy group Education Reform Now, said in testimony on the matter before the Connecticut legislature. “It is obvious to us all that passing an admissions advantage along family bloodlines is unethical and anti-American.”

Such sentiment is typically found on the political left. But it got a boost from the political right when the US Supreme Court in June 2023 forbade the use of affirmative action on race in college admissions and suggested that equity-minded institutions could instead take steps such as ending legacy favouritism.

Despite their constant assertions of concern for improving social equity, hundreds of top US universities annually reserve large shares of their entering classes for family members of their alumni and donors, for athletes and for those who can apply early – all with negative implications for lower-income and minority applicants.

Harvard University, as part of the Supreme Court case, acknowledged that almost 70 per cent of its applicants with alumni and donor ties are white. And legacy students accounted for more than 35 per cent of Harvard’s class of 2022. That has produced outcomes such as the eight-institution Ivy League having one of every six undergraduates coming from a family in the top 1 per cent of earnings.

The use of legacy preferences is overwhelmingly a feature of private universities. US Department of Education figures for the 2022-23 academic year show that of the 1,923 selective-admissions colleges and universities in the US, 579 considered legacy status in their admission decisions, and 460 of them were four-year private non-profit institutions.

Colorado in 2021 became the first state to prohibit legacy admissions at its public institutions. But no state so far has done that in the private arena.

State lawmakers pursuing the idea in Massachusetts and New York have put forth bills that would levy fees or fines on institutions that persist with legacy admissions. The Massachusetts plan would give the money to community college students, while the New York version would aid low-income students more generally.

The idea’s Connecticut advocates, meanwhile, are not suggesting any specific enforcement mechanism, in a bid to ease the bill’s chances of passage. That hopefully will “allow us to focus on the practice of legacy admissions preference itself, and not necessarily what an appropriate penalty might be”, said one legislative sponsor, state senator Derek Slap. As for consequences for non-compliance, Mr Slap said: “I believe the schools would follow the law.”

That, however, has not softened opposition among Connecticut’s private institutions, including Yale University. At Connecticut’s legislative hearing on the matter, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, Jeremiah Quinlan, described his university’s generous aid packages for low-income students, and said the government should not get involved in deciding how many of them it should accept.

Many of the state’s public institutions, including the University of Connecticut, joined in opposition. UConn leaders said they did not grant legacy preferences but also did not welcome the prospect of political interference in such decisions.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles