Several prominent universities banned legacy admissions when affirmative action ended. With students from underserved backgrounds liable to take the biggest step backward, university officials believed the practice of favoring applicants who hail from alumni was difficult to justify. One civil rights group sued Harvard University, charging that legacy admissions “expand[s] privilege instead of opportunity,” AP News reports.
Now, lawmakers are looking to end legacy admissions across several states, whether at their public universities, private colleges—or both. Virginia’s governor will most likely sign a bill passed by the state’s House and Senate. A bill has been proposed in Connecticut and Utah’s House is currently on the move.
While ending the practice makes headlines, its impact on admissions practices is hard to discern. Wesleyan University President Michael Roth described how it played a “negligible” role for years before the institution halted the practice. Moreover, murky data and secretive practices have prevented the public from understanding the true extent to which legacy admissions affect enrollment on a national scale.
In light of the confusion and half-truths, some higher education leaders believe that banning legacy admissions may be causing more harm than good.
Alumni relations issues
Colleges and universities that choose not to recognize legacy admissions may dissuade alumni from supporting their alma maters if their children aren’t given a second look in the application process, says Michael Gargano, president emeritus at St. Vincent’s College in Pennsylvania.
Alumni can help to strengthen recruitment and build bridges between academics and industry.
“How do you reconcile universities that want alumni to be involved with the alma mater for student recruitment, volunteering, donations, networking, hiring graduates, providing internships, but at the same time tell alumni their kids, their family members’ kids, and their extended family members’ kids are not welcomed as legacy admission?” he says. “Not possible to ask alumni for assistance and then turn away from alumni with admission.”
Minority student impacts
It sounds counterintuitive, but some have argued that minority students can actually be harmed by the decision to end legacy admissions. Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver, believes considering legacy status can help minority students whose family members have attended Colorado’s colleges and universities receive a second look.
“Now that we have families of color applying for admission, why would we suddenly not want to consider legacy admission?” he said, according to The Colorado Sun. “That, to me, seems even more unfair.”
While Colorado’s move to ban legacy admissions in 2021 didn’t affect UD since it’s a private university, Rinehart still disapproved, believing it hindered admissions officers’ professional judgment in admitting students. Public institutions that were affected have not reported any significant changes to their admissions process, The Colorado Sun reports.
Additionally, in a New York Times op-ed, Princeton professor Shamus Khan argued that minority students have the most to lose from legacy admissions being banned at elite institutions. He contends that the professional networks students from disenfranchised backgrounds gained after networking with other students was one of the most important catalysts to their social mobility.
“Elite colleges connected them to students born into privilege—the very kind of student that legacy preferences admit in such large numbers,” he wrote.
Finding a middle ground?
For most colleges and universities that accept more than 50% of students’ applications, college leaders should take note of Adelphi University. While the private New York institution does not engage in legacy admissions, it does reward legacy students with a $1,000 scholarship if they are accepted.
“We want to acknowledge families who have chosen Adelphi generation after generation,” says Shawana Singletary, assistant vice president and chief enrollment officer at Adelphi.
While primarily a symbolic gesture, Singletary believes it contributes to the great morale of Adelphi alumni and the university’s community. “They are active and involved in the Adelphi community, providing resume workshops, cultivating interview skills and contributing to Adelphi’s Women’s Leadership Conference.”