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States are moving to ban legacy admissions with Virginia leading the way

By Jillian Berman

For years, colleges 'stuck their head in the sand' on the issue, but legacy admissions are now under attack.

Legacy preferences in college admissions could soon become a thing of the past if state lawmakers across the country have their way.

Virginia is poised to pass a ban on legacy admissions at the state's public colleges. On Wednesday, state lawmakers took the final step to getting a bill banning legacy admissions in front of the state's governor. The bill could head to Governor Glenn Youngkin's desk as early as next week. The expectation is that he will sign it and provide momentum to similar efforts in other states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, which are all home to Ivy League schools.

The proposals come in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision last year to ban colleges from using race-conscious policies to build their classes. With colleges and other higher education stakeholders adjusting to the impact of the decision, banning legacy admissions has increasingly been seen as a way for colleges to diversify enrollment.

The fight around legacy admissions, which provide a preference to applicants whose relatives attended a school, is just getting started.

Even some supporters of efforts to ban schools from considering legacy status say they aren't enough to make college admissions fair. At the same time, detractors worry these initiatives could be the first step in a slippery slope of state governments inserting themselves into campuses' practices.

Events over the past several years, including the Varsity Blues scandal, have called attention to the role of legacy preferences in admissions. But the policies remained in place in part because of a "symbiotic relationship" between proponents of affirmative action and proponents of legacy admissions, said Richard Kahlenberg, a professorial lecturer at George Washington University, who has been critical of legacy preferences.

"Proponents of racial preferences liked that legacy preferences were there as a way of showing that the system as a whole is not meritocratic," Kahlenberg said. "Proponents of legacy preferences liked that racial preferences were there because it provided some political cover for the practice.

"There was a gentleman's agreement that civil rights groups would not go after universities' use of legacy preferences so long as universities employed racial preferences. That bargain is gone," he added.

Legacy admissions under increased scrutiny

Last year, more than a dozen prominent private colleges, like Wesleyan, voluntarily dropped legacy preferences following the affirmative action decision. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has also said schools should reconsider their use of legacy admissions, adding that he would consider "pulling whatever levers" he could to discourage it. The Department opened an inquiry into Harvard's use of the practice last year, after a group of civil rights organizations alleged it discriminates against Black, Hispanic and Asian applications.

The practice of legacy-driven admissions has a tortured history as a tool elite colleges once used to ensure Jews weren't admitted to their schools.

Despite the scrutiny on the practice, roughly 500 colleges still consider legacy status as part of their admissions process, according to Department of Education data analyzed by Education Reform Now, a think tank and advocacy organization. Research indicates the use of legacy practices does provide a significant leg up to legacy applicants and an even bigger leg up to wealthy students.

Legacy applicants are four times more likely to be admitted to a group of very selective institutions, including Ivy League schools, than students who aren't legacies and have the same academic and non-academic credentials, according to research by Opportunity Insights, the Harvard University organization led by economist Raj Chetty that studies barriers to economic mobility.

Legacy applicants who come from families in the top 1% of income are five times more likely to be admitted than non-legacy students with similar qualifications, the research found. Part of the reason schools say they like the practice is that it fuels financial contributions by alumni, and fosters a sense of continued community.

Still, the combination of the Supreme Court decision and the Opportunity Insights data helped to highlight the unfairness of using legacy preferences, said James Murphy, the deputy director of higher education policy at Education Reform Now. Those factors pushed more than a dozen prominent schools to announce they would stop using it.

When that happened, Murphy said, he was "more optimistic about places dropping it."

"Not enough did, they stuck their head in the sand and hoped it would just pass," he said. That's part of the reason why states are getting involved.

In Virginia, banning legacy preferences passes both legislative bodies unanimously

For Schuyler VanValkenburg, the Virginia state senator who introduced a bill to ban legacy preferences at the state's public colleges, the Supreme Court's affirmative action decision created urgency to address the way the practice put low-income and first-generation students at a disadvantage.

The University of Virginia, the state's flagship college, changed its approach to considering applicants' connections to the university following the court's decision. The school got rid of the option to check a box indicating legacy status as part of its application process. Instead, students can respond to a prompt explaining their "personal or historical relationships with UVA." Some applicants may choose to use the prompt to discuss their connection to the school as "descendents of ancestors who labored at the university," school officials said last year.

A UVA spokesperson said the school generally doesn't comment on legislation while it's pending. So far, the legislation hasn't received much pushback. VanValkenburg said he anticipated the bill would have backing from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but he was surprised that it was passed unanimously in both chambers of the state's legislature.

The legislation faces more procedural steps before it likely ends up on the governor's desk. A spokesperson for Youngkin, the state's Republican governor, told the Associated Press that he'll review bills that reach his desk, "but believes admission to Virginia's universities and colleges should be based on merit."

"At the end of the day it's a fundamental issue about fairness, which is why it's got the overwhelming support it has," he said. Indeed, about 75% of Americans said they believe schools should not consider legacy preference in their admissions decisions, according to 2022 data from the Pew Research Center.

Simon Cataldo, a Massachusetts state representative whose bill targets legacy admissions, donor preferences and binding early decision at the state's colleges, including private schools, said he was inspired to introduce it after seeing their pernicious impact on low-income college students firsthand.

Cataldo worked as a special education teacher in Harlem and ultimately founded a nonprofit that in part aims to help low-income students apply to college. As part of this work, he watched students skip out on making a binding early commitment because they needed financial-aid information to make a decision and saw that they lost out to wealthier, more advantaged students.

He said proposals like his resonate because the public recognizes "profound hypocrisy," of elite schools decrying the loss of affirmative action as a tool to build diverse classes and still employing practices like legacy preferences.

"At any moment they could of course end those policies that they're using but they are choosing not to do so," Cataldo said, "which begs the question of how committed they actually are to concepts like diversity, equity and inclusion."

Part of the reason people in his state and others are supportive of these efforts, Cataldo says, is because recent events, including rising antisemitism on campus and the debate over who has access to these institutions, has the public questioning these schools' autonomy, given their preferential tax treatment.

"Preferential tax treatment is something that is paid for out of the pocket of every tax payer," Cataldo said. "Folks are looking at that at the same time that they're looking at some cultural challenges that these institutions are having, including what I would describe as deeply troubling antisemitism on campus. Those issues are causing people to take a fresh look at these schools and how much every day taxpayers should be propping up their endowments."

Worries about state governments encroaching on colleges' practices

Angel Pérez, the chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he's concerned about the increased scrutiny on college-admissions practices coming from state legislatures.

"I worry about legislators taking away an institution's ability to decide what's important to them on their particular campus," he said, noting that for some schools the idea of fostering generational connections may be a priority.

What's more, Pérez, who used to work in enrollment management at Trinity College and elsewhere, said he doesn't think that getting rid of legacy preferences will meaningfully diversify colleges.

"Everyone I speak to I remind that the fastest way to open the doors wider for low-income, first-generation students and students of color is that we're going to have to change the funding model for higher education," he said. "It's almost like as a society we are tweaking around the edges of college access, but we're not addressing the real elephant in the room," which is a lack of funding for these students.

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02-14-24 1437ET

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