Last week, the Supreme Court heard opening arguments for two cases about affirmative action in college admissions. An organization called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) sued both Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill over their consideration of race in admissions decisions. Many legal experts, higher education professionals, and journalists expect that the Court will rule in favor of SFFA, thus overturning more than 40 years of legal precedent that has allowed the use of race in college admissions.
If these predictions are accurate, affirmative action may not be the only admissions practice that will be curtailed. There is a great deal of speculation that colleges will abandon the use of legacy admissions as well. Before I delve into that, let me first explain what “legacy admissions” means: it involves giving preference to applicants who are the children and/or grandchildren of alumni.
Why is it likely that colleges will stop considering legacy if they are forced by the Supreme Court to stop considering race? Legacy preferences tend to benefit white, wealthy applicants, so if colleges want to be seen as having no bias toward students of a certain race or races, it would be in their best interest to eliminate legacy from the admissions process.
Legacy admissions has been controversial from the start: in the 1920s and 1930s, Ivy League schools began giving preference to the children of alumni as a way to limit the enrollment of Jews and immigrants. Over the next several decades, the practice spread. According to a recent report from the think tank Education Reform Now, in 2020, over 780 colleges considered legacy in their admissions decisions. In addition, of the 64 colleges that admit less than 25% of applicants, 80% give an advantage to legacies.
Harvard provides a good example of just how much of an advantage legacy applicants have. James Murphy, the author of the aforementioned report, explained in a Chronicle of Higher Education article that Harvard gives all applicants an academic score of 1 to 5. Only 15% of applicants who get a 1 or 2 are admitted, which demonstrates that strong academics alone are not enough to get into Harvard. However, for applicants whose families earn less than $60,000/year, 24% of those with a 1 or 2 are admitted. Although that is a significant advantage, it’s nothing compared to that enjoyed by legacies: Harvard admits 55% of children of alumni who are rated 1 or 2 in academics.
Murphy pointed out that in Texas and California, where citizens voted in 1996 and 2004, respectively, to prohibit public colleges from considering race in admissions, some colleges in those states subsequently ended the use of legacy admissions as well. Additionally, Murphy stated that since 2016, over 100 colleges, including Amherst, Johns Hopkins, the University of Florida, and Purdue, have stopped considering legacy. And just last year, the Colorado legislature passed a law banning the state’s public colleges from using legacy in admissions.
There is also widespread public support for the elimination of legacy admissions: 75% of American adults are in favor of ending the practice, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year. Perhaps more importantly, in a recent Inside Higher Ed survey of college admissions directors, only 12% agreed with the statement, “Institutions should grant some degree of preference to legacy applicants over non-legacy applicants.”
All of this indicates that the days of legacy admissions are numbered. As Murphy wrote in the Chronicle, “A Supreme Court ruling is not actually going to force colleges to drop legacy preferences, but a commitment to diversity and common decency should . . . If the justices are going to ban admissions officers from considering the impact race has on access to opportunity in America, then college presidents and boards of trustees will have little choice but to stop putting a thumb on the scale for the children of alumni.”