Legacy Admissions — New Legal Challenges to a Different Kind of Affirmative Action

31/07/202315 minute read
Legacy Admissions — New Legal Challenges to a Different Kind of Affirmative Action

It’s been barely a month since we all learned that the Supreme Court would ban race preferences for college admissions. Now there’s a new salvo in the admissions controversies — a lawsuit challenging legacy admissions at Harvard.

After the landmark Supreme Court ruling in June, we explored some of the expected future impacts, including new challenges to legacy admissions.

If you’re aspiring to be a strong applicant at highly selective colleges or universities, you may be wondering how much lawsuits like these will impact admissions for individual students.

The short answer is that yes, any changes schools adopt to race-based affirmative action policies or to their legacy admissions practices do impact the statistical odds of who gets in and who doesn’t, but the impact these admissions practices have on any single individual applicant are probably less significant.

In this post we’ll review exactly what legacy admissions are and what’s in the headlines today about the practice. We’ll also explore some of the ins and outs of the historical and legal contexts and consider the potential impact of a ban.

In the Headlines

In early July, The New York Times, Slate and other news outlets announced that the Department of Justice had launched an investigation into legacy admissions at Harvard in conjunction with a suit by three Boston-area progressive organizations that’s being championed by the Lawyers Office for Civil Rights, the same law group that even recently supported Harvard in its efforts to use race considerations for admissions.

By all appearances, it seems that long-simmering concerns about legacy admissions practices boiled over after the justices banned race-based preferences, emphasizing principles of fairness and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Now some policy advocates are pushing hard to make the point that the same principles of fairness and individual merit should hold when it comes to preferential policies for legacy applicants.

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What are Legacy Admissions?

Legacy admissions practices involve giving preferential admissions consideration to sons and daughters, and in some cases grandchildren, of school alumni. 

Available public admissions data are limited, but some studies suggest that legacy preferences can significantly increase the statistical odds for admissions. And, legacy preferences are most widely used by highly selective schools compared to other schools.

Some researchers have also contended that on average legacy applicants may be admitted in spite of showing less academic promise in terms of GPA and SAT/ACT scores and in light of their academic performance in college.

According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IEHP), legacy applicants may also get other privileges once admitted, such as exclusive access to some school faculty and specialized academic support and tuition discounts.

In its recent decision banning race-based affirmative action for admissions, the majority of justices rebuked the idea of basing preferential treatment on a broad category such as race. 

Policy watchers were quick to respond that other forms of preferential treatment have routinely been accepted as part of traditional admissions practices at top private schools, including legacy preferences which historically have also, at times, been shown to be intertwined with discriminatory practices based on race, ethnicity, creed, and gender.

What Other Groups Might Be Affected?

The current lawsuits and challenges to legacy admissions may eventually encompass other preferential admissions considerations that, like legacy considerations, are also judged to favor applicants that are more often in the higher-income brackets and White.

Adding fuel to these concerns about preferences that privilege the already privileged were admissions surveys and studies made public during the recent affirmative action case against Harvard. 

While the Harvard case focused on alleged prejudice to Asian applicants due to race-based preferences, the evidential data made public in those hearings  “also revealed how preferences operate for other applicant groups, including recruited athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff.”

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Why Does This Matter?

If successful, legal challenges to legacy admissions could affect many future applicants and about 53% of colleges and universities use legacy admissions practices, so the outcome of the current lawsuit and DOJ investigation could impact many top schools.

According to data on US colleges and universities reported by IHEP alumni relations are considered for admissions at

  • about 59% of private, nonprofit colleges and universities
  • about 48% of highly selective public institutions use them
  • about 29% of all public institutions on average use them

It seems clear that the fate of legacy admissions practices will have some significant impacts, though arguably not as much impact as the elimination of race-based preferences will have in terms of campus diversity.

Likewise, the extent to which schools factor in athletics varies too, but if athletic considerations are also banned in the future, the impact would be significant at many highly selective schools, including Harvard, and especially at any highly selective schools that heavily recruit for athletics.

According to one study that focuses on Harvard, the impact of banning athletes, legacies, relatives of donors, and children of faculty and staff (or “ALDC” applicants) might have the following impacts on specific types of Harvard applicants:

  • About one-quarter of White ALDC applicants would still have been admitted without their ALDC status
  • Because ALDC students come, overall, from higher-income families, eliminating ALDC preferences would likely open doors to more less affluent applicants
  • Doing away with either athletic or legacy preferences would significantly decrease the number of White admits with increases or no change in the number of African American, Hispanic, and Asian American students admitted.

In 2018, Harvard’s own survey of incoming freshmen (the class of 2022) indicated, based on a significant number of participants, that about 36% of respondents had legacy status.

Extrapolating from the Harvard data, we can further gauge possible impacts of banning ALDC preferences if the practice were universally banned. 

Despite some significant impacts, however, researchers also point out that at highly selective colleges a high number of very qualified applicants are already, by necessity, turned away each year, due to limited seats and huge demand.

Therefore, even if a lawsuit challenging legacy admissions were successful, the impact for any given individual applicant to a top school would be less significant and hard to measure. For most individuals applying to less selective schools, the impact would likely be very insignificant.

If you have questions about how current admissions laws will affect your application, please reach out to one of our academic advisors.

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The Bigger Picture (in a Nutshell)

We’ve explored some of the big-picture context and implications of recent admissions cases elsewhere, but colleges are frequently challenged on their admissions practices because access to top schools can open doors to other opportunities for economic advancement and because holistic admissions practices can be highly subjective and have historically been intertwined with issues of racial discrimination, race-based affirmative action, and more recently accusations of reverse discrimination.

  • Elite schools at the turn of the 20th Century were routinely using holistic or preferential admissions practices to discriminate against various groups of applicants based on race, ethnicity, creed, social stereotypes, and gender
  • As more Americans pursue higher levels of education for a changing job market, and as civil rights initiatives push to expand access to higher education opportunities, the contest for access to top schools has grown increasingly competitive 
  • Legacy admissions preferences have been in place for over a century and without any very convincing justification in terms of any broad public benefit, while race-based affirmative action has been challenged many times in court and now banned, creating the perception, for many Americans, that there is a double-standard being applied when it comes to different forms of preferential admissions considerations

A Preference is a Preference by any Other Name

While legacy admissions are widespread and nothing new, court evidence from the recent affirmative action case against Harvard along with the arguments for banning affirmative action presented in the High Court’s recent landmark ruling have both put a new spotlight on all forms of preferential treatment for applicants.

“‘Why are we rewarding children for privileges and advantages accrued by prior generations?’ asked Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights” while speaking with The New York Times

And, even though legacy admissions are not directly tied to race and ethnicity, those who study legacy admissions point out that there are significant racial correlations as well.

For example, legacy admissions obviously advantage applicants whose parents also went to a top college in most cases, and it has been noted that just fifteen years ago 96% of Ivy League alums were White.

According to The New York Times court documents from the affirmative action case in the Supreme Court reveal that “applicants who are recruited as athletes, legacies, relatives of donors and children of faculty and staff …make up less than 5 percent of applicants [as a group], but around 30 percent of those [are] admitted each year. About 67.8 percent of these applicants are white…” while white applicants overall measure about 40% at Harvard.

If legacy preferences do indeed favor Whites, then they impact other racial groups unfairly, the argument would also go.

For example, when the Associated Press looked for data on legacy admissions they found, based on the handful of schools willing to share data, that the number of freshmen admitted as legacy applicants ranged from 4% to as high as 23%. At half of the schools responding (four schools), the number of legacy students admitted was larger than the number of Black students admitted.

The legacy preferences that seem to favor White applicants also appear to confer advantages to applicants from the wealthiest families. A recent study on college access and income showed that both legacy admissions and athletics preferences increased admissions for the wealthiest applicants. 

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Is it Really Against the Law? The Civil Rights Law and Perspectives

While it seems hard to make a strong case for protecting legacy admissions, school leaders typically argue it helps colleges maintain unique school traditions and cultures. 

As for those challenging legacy admissions and athletic-based preferences, it’s hard to know if they can challenge these practices in the same way race preferences were challenged, given that race is a legally protected category (along with ethnicity, sex, religion, age, and disability status).

Those filing the suit against Harvard with the Department of Education contend that legacy admissions violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The provisions of the Act prohibiting “discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds or other Federal financial assistance” are not limited to intentionally discriminatory actions but also apply to any “procedures, criteria or methods of administration that appear neutral but have a discriminatory effect on individuals because of their race, color, or national origin.”

And, as we have seen, those who have scrutinized legacy admissions in the past as well as evidence from Harvard’s recent affirmative action case support the contention that legacy admissions arguably provide indirect advantages to White applicants and disadvantage applicants of other races.

What do People in the US Think is Right?

A 2022 Pew Research Institute poll found that 75% of Americans think legacy status should not be a factor in admissions, up 7% compared to 2019 poll results.

IHEP has publicly denounced legacy admissions, noting the historical links between racism and unequal access to top schools. In the present, they argue, legacy admissions “perpetuate privilege…despite no evidence of benefits:

“…While approximately 44 percent of institutions include a student’s status as a first-generation college-goer in their admissions decisions, 53 percent of institutions evaluate legacy status...This overemphasis on factors that signal a student’s privilege of wealth or background further divides postsecondary opportunities by race and class.”

But some Americans, especially college leaders, think legacy admissions and other decision making tools at colleges help colleges define their unique campus community and culture.

The Crimson Education Perspective

At Crimson Education we try to impart to young people the values of Learning, Diversity, Excellence, Integrity, Leadership, and Community.

Based on these values, we believe in principles of fairness and truth-seeking and support individuals’ pursuit of educational opportunities and academic excellence.

We also don’t believe communities benefit from ignoring or failing to confront and address historical and complex inequities. At the same we understand that forging consensus about the best way forward can be challenging, especially when getting into top schools can be so competitive.

Crimson’s co-founder and CEO, Jamie Beaton, believes that decisions by leaders at John Hopkins and other prominent schools to eliminate legacy admissions marks a positive trend away from outdated policies that exacerbate income inequalities in favor of actions that promote greater fairness and inclusion.

What Makes Crimson Different

Final Thoughts

If you’re a Crimson student we know that you share our excitement in the pursuit of rewarding academic challenges and experiences. Crimson students have diverse backgrounds and come from all around the world, but they share a common drive to open doors to the best learning opportunities possible and make an impact in the world.

We believe we all benefit when colleges seek to balance principles of fairness with admissions practices that seek to honor diverse applicant pools in recognition that there is no simplistic yardstick for measuring merit, readiness, and ability, because great contributions to society come through diverse gifts, experiences, and perspectives.

It’s right to be concerned about fairness and opportunity when it comes to some of the most influential institutions of higher learning, so we’ll do our best to continue to help our team members and students explore the ins and outs of admissions policies and controversies as new events unfold.

Learn more about Crimson Education and our educational programming and college advising services.

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