Legacy College admissions slammed in new report
Legacy admissions — the practice of a college giving preferential admissions treatment to the children of its former students — comes under heavy criticism in a new report that documents the extent of the practice and also calls for legislation and to other policies that would reduce or even put an end to it.
The new report, prepared by Education Reform Now (ERN), with financial support from the Kresge Foundation, is part of ERNThe Future of Fair Admissions series, written about the Supreme Court hearing this month on two cases challenging the legality of racially-conscious admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
Use of inherited preferences is widespread, but declining
The practice of giving admissions preference to former applicants has a long history, dating back to the 1920s, when some colleges began using the practice as a backdoor strategy to limit the number of Jewish, minority students. and immigrants giving preference to the children of alumni who were rarely Jewish, colored, or immigrant.
The current extent of legacy admissions is difficult to determine precisely. According to a 2020 the wall street journal report, 56% of the nation’s top 250 institutions considered legacy in their admissions process. This is down from 63% in 2004.
A 2018 survey of US college admissions officers found that 42% of private school admissions officers agreed that legacy status was a factor in admissions decisions. In public colleges, the corresponding figure was only 6%.
Drawing on data from the common dataset, the ERN report indicates that 787 colleges and universities provided some type of legacy preference in 2020, about half of the four-year institutions completing the common dataset . However, the practice is much more common among colleges described as being very selective in their admission rates; 80% of the 64 four-year colleges and universities that admit fewer than 25% of applicants say they give an advantage to children of alumni.
According to the ERN report, the use of inherited preferences is much more common in private colleges, especially those located in the northeastern United States. In contrast, only 24% of public four-year schools grant an admission advantage to relatives of former students.
While 19 states do not have public universities or colleges that offer legacy preference, a number of public flagship universities continue to use this practice. Examples include the University of Oklahoma, Penn State University, University of Virginia, University of Alabama, and University of North Carolina.
Objections to inherited admissions
The preference for inheritance has been heavily criticized for years by both higher education insiders and the general public, as well as Democrats and Republicans. However, objections to this practice have recently gained momentum for at least four reasons.
First, the recent Varsity Blues admissions cheating scandal drew renewed attention to the scope of the practice and the extent to which unscrupulous actors were willing to use it to their personal advantage.
Second, several prominent institutions, including Texas A&M University, Purdue University, California Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, and Amherst College, have taken steps to end their use of inherited preferences, bringing more scrutiny to schools that cling to it. . The ERN report says at least 102 colleges and universities that once considered legacy status in their admissions process have stopped doing so since 2015.
Third, the substantial magnitude of the benefit conferred on bequests is better known. The “tip” former candidates receive is not negligible, although it is difficult to quantify it, since most schools protect this data from public view. This advice tends to go to applicants who, as children of elite college graduates, already enjoy a number of economic and educational advantages. It’s a bit like giving Tacko Fall, who is 7’6”, the tallest player in the NBA, a pair of height-enhancing shoes.
A 2007 study of 30 highly selective colleges found that legacy applicants were three times more likely to be admitted than equally qualified non-legacy applicants. Legacy applicants to Harvard are approximately six times more likely to be admitted than non-legacy, non-athlete applicants. In his new book poison ivy, Evan Mandery reports that elite colleges typically reserve between 10 and 25 percent of their admissions for legacy applicants.
According to ERN, the percentage of the freshman class admitted to multiple colleges through the legacy route exceeds the percentage of incoming freshmen who are black. For example, at Notre Dame, 21% of freshmen in the class of 2020 were heirs, 4% were black. At Harvard, 14% of the incoming class were heirlooms, double the percentage of black freshmen at 7%. Similar ratios were found at Stanford University, University of North Carolina, and Cornell.
Finally, the long-awaited and closely watched student legal challenges for fair admissions to affirmative action admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina have increased scrutiny of legacy admissions. If, as many legal experts expect, the Supreme Court decides to ban consideration of student race in college admissions, it will likely have ramifications for inherited preferences, which overwhelmingly favor white students. If colleges are required to practice race-neutral admissions policies, they may also be required to abandon practices — like inherited preferences — that discriminate against students from underrepresented minority groups.
Efforts to restrict the practice
Colleges that give an inheritance preference generally offer two rationales for the practice. First, they claim they will collect more private donations from alumni if they give their children a helping hand. In turn, these funds can be used to help more low-income students afford to attend. Think of it as a trickle down from the ivory tower.
Second, they argue that students whose parents have a college education are more likely to persevere and eventually earn an undergraduate degree than students whose parents did not attend college. This is the Darwinian formula for higher education – the survival of the well-off.
These justifications are becoming increasingly difficult to swallow and some states are taking steps to limit or end this practice. California has passed a law that requires colleges to report to the government if they have a legacy admissions policy. Colorado bans legacy admissions from its public colleges and universities.
In New York, a bill was introduced this year that would ban the use of inherited preferences at public and private universities. Connecticut lawmakers considered a similar bill, which many colleges and universities in the state opposed.
At the federal level, Senator Jeff Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) have introduced the College Admissions Equity Act for Students, that would prohibit higher education institutions participating in federal student aid programs — which include most colleges — from giving preferential treatment in admissions to former students or children of donors.
Besides the appearance of a fundamental injustice, the practice of legacy admissions at highly selective colleges in the United States is problematic because most of these schools accept so few initially qualified students. Further restricting their range of admissions by favoring the children of former students is difficult to justify when these establishments simultaneously claim notions of merit, equality and social mobility.
The ERN report recommends four other policies that would reduce or even eliminate inherited admissions preferences.
1. Ask the US Department of Education to collect data from institutions as part of its IPEDS reports that would identify whether and to what extent a college is using legacy admissions.
2. Make federal Title IV financial assistance income conditional on the elimination of the inherited preference by enacting legislation similar to the College Admissions Equity Act for Students.
3. State legislatures could follow a similar path and condition part of the state’s allocation to operations and/or financial assistance to the elimination of inherited preferences.
4. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 imposes a 1.4% tax on university endowment income for universities with 500 or more students and endowment assets greater than $500,000 per student . According to the ERN report, 39 of the 44 universities and colleges reaching the endowment tax threshold in fiscal year 2021 granted an inheritance preference. Congress could impose an additional tax on institutions that are subject to the endowment tax if they grant an inheritance preference and reduce the tax for those that do not.
A college’s decision to scrap legacy admissions may irritate some alumni. It might even sometimes lead some to refuse a donation or discourage their children from applying, although the evidence for such effects is very thin. Universities that removed affirmative action for children of alumni did not suffer. Neither their registrations nor their donations plunged. They did the right thing. More colleges must follow their lead and end a practice that is increasingly recognized for doing far more harm than good.