Capitol Hill Targets Legacy Preferences for College Admissions

From a Wall Street Journal story by Lindsay Wise and Jennifer Calfas headlined “Capitol Hill Targets Legacy Preferences for College Admissions”:

Senators are taking fresh aim at legacy and donor preferences for admission to college, as advantages given to certain students and groups come under increasing scrutiny following a recent Supreme Court ruling striking down the use of race in college admissions.

A bill introduced Tuesday by Sens. Todd Young (R., Ind.) and Tim Kaine (D., Va.)—called the MERIT Act—would try to end legacy admissions at colleges and universities. The bipartisan legislation would add a new standard for accreditation under the Higher Education Act that would prohibit institutions from giving preferential treatment during the admissions process based on an applicant’s relationship to alumni or donors.

The bill‘s prospects are uncertain, but it underscores the heightened interest on Capitol Hill in college admissions.

In June, the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to consider race in university admissions, eliminating a tool many universities used to boost their ranks of Black and Hispanic students. The ruling sparked a broader debate over fairness and merit when colleges choose their students, including the role of legacy and donor preferences.

Preferences for applicants whose parents graduated from or donated money to an institution have disproportionately benefited students who are both white and wealthy.

The bill defines preferential treatment as “making an admissions decision or awarding tangible education benefits where an applicant’s relationship with an alumni of, or donor to, the deciding institution serves as the determinative factor.” Institutions can still consider applicants’ “demonstrated interest” in an institution as a deciding factor in admissions, according to the legislative text.

“America is a land of opportunity, not a land of aristocracy,” Young said. “Legacy admissions restrict opportunities for many bright and talented young Americans and provide unmerited advantage to the most connected individuals in our society.”

Kaine said the legislation would ensure that first-generation and low-income students aren’t put at a disadvantage in the admissions process. “A student’s acceptance into a college should not hinge on whether their parents attended that school or donated a large sum of money,” he said.

Schools supporting the practice have argued that legacy preference plays a crucial role in fundraising efforts—and serves as potential leverage in those conversations. Alumni donated a total of $13.5 billion to U.S. universities and colleges in 2022, representing more than 22% of total giving, according to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Critics of the practice argue that legacy students have lower academic qualifications on average than non-legacies and earn slightly lower grades despite higher acceptance rates. It isn’t known how many universities or colleges weigh the legacy status of an applicant as part of the admissions process.

A growing number of advocacy groups and federal and state lawmakers have called for the legacy and donor admissions advantages to end in recent years, fueled both by diversity concerns and a notorious college admissions cheating scandal.

Some selective schools, including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., said they stopped the practice before the Supreme Court’s affirmative-action decision. Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said they would no longer consider an applicant’s legacy status in their admissions practices in more recent months. Colorado lawmakers banned legacy admissions at public universities in the state in 2021.

The Supreme Court’s decision ending affirmative action sent shock waves through higher education, forcing universities and colleges to re-evaluate what information they can ask from applicants while still building a racially diverse campus. Some institutions that barred race-conscious admission practices before the high court’s ruling have struggled to reach goals to build a more diverse student body without affirmative action.

The Biden administration’s Education Department made several recommendations for universities to consider for improving campus diversity following the affirmative action ruling in a September report. One of those recommendations was to eliminate the use of legacy preference in admissions practices.

The Education Department opened an investigation into Harvard University in July after Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a complaint on behalf of Massachusetts-based Black and Latino community organizations.

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