A Potential Shakeup Looms in Admissions as Movement Grows Against Legacy Preferences
More states are considering a ban on the practice of granting admissions preferences to relatives of alumni — and may even go after private colleges, an unprecedented step.
Massachusetts lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a bill out of committee that would ban legacy preferences at both public and private colleges. As written, the measure would apply to Harvard University, one of the most scrutinized practitioners of legacy admissions. Harvard is currently under federal investigation over its legacy policy; university officials
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More states are considering bans on the practice of granting admissions preferences to relatives of alumni — and may even go after such legacy policies at private colleges, an unprecedented step.
Massachusetts lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a bill out of committee that would ban legacy preferences at both public and private colleges. As written, the measure would apply to Harvard University, one of the most-scrutinized practitioners of legacy admissions. Harvard is under federal investigation over its legacy policy; university officials said last fall that they were considering a change in the policy.
Giving an admissions advantage to legacy applicants is most commonly associated with the nation’s most-selective institutions, but around 600 colleges, mostly private ones, do so. Massachusetts has the most colleges in the nation that use legacy admissions, according to a review of federal data by Education Reform Now, an advocacy group that wrote the bill.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court largely banned affirmative action last June, opposition to legacy admissions has grown. Politicians in both parties and advocates have condemned the practice as discriminatory and say it unfairly elevates white, wealthy college applicants.
Legislators in Connecticut are expected to reintroduce a proposed ban on legacy admissions at both public and private colleges during their legislative session, which began this week.
I think that speaks to the stigma that is attached to this practice.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, a Republican, has indicated he plans to sign legislation that would bar the state’s public colleges from using legacy admissions. Virginia would join Colorado, which banned the practice, also at public colleges, in 2021.
Because the Massachusetts bill has the support of the House’s majority leader, representatives of Education Reform Now said they’re optimistic it will pass. If it did, the bill would next be considered by the state Senate.
The Massachusetts bill would bar public and private colleges from sending information to admissions officers about “any colleges that a relative of the applicant attended.” Institutions would still be able to ask for that information from applicants, said James S. Murphy, director of postsecondary-education policy at Education Reform Now. The bill doesn’t say how it would be enforced. It would take effect in the 2025-26 academic year.
According to a review of federal data by Education Reform Now, most colleges with an endowment over $1 billion use legacy preferences.
Legacy admissions are less commonly used at public colleges, but 70 percent of public institutions in Massachusetts do, per another Education Reform Now analysis.
Mary Tamer, Massachusetts executive director of Education Reform Now, said Harvard and other selective colleges in the state had not weighed in on the bill. A Harvard spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Evan Mandery, the author of Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us (The New Press, 2022), a professor at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a Harvard alumnus, said he expected that the university would defend the practice. He called Harvard one of the “biggest practitioners of legacy preference.”
The number of colleges considering legacy status in admissions has dropped by over 400 since 2015, said Murphy. In 2022 the U.S. Department of Education started requiring colleges to indicate if they used legacy admissions, a step Murphy believes prompted some institutions to change course.
“I think that speaks to the stigma that is attached to this practice,” he said. “It’s the first time they asked the question. They wanted to say no, we don’t consider legacy status.”
According to a survey last August by a polling firm called Data for Progress, there’s bipartisan support — 72 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of independents, and 66 percent of Republicans — for banning legacy preferences.
Mandery noted that many politicians who will decide the fate of legacy admissions may have benefited from it themselves. A large share of the nation’s elected leaders are graduates of the highly selective institutions that are most likely to use it.
“I hope they will support equity,” Mandery said, “rather than loyalty to the historically exclusionary, racist, and classist policies of their alma mater.”