Legacy admissions are under a new wave of scrutiny after the Supreme Court decided to end affirmative action. File Photo by Jemal Countess/UPI | License Photo
July 20 (UPI) -- Legacy admissions have come under increased scrutiny with the Supreme Court's decision to end affirmative action prompting universities to take a closer look at their admissions policies.
Wesleyan University took the step earlier this week with President Michael S. Roth citing the Supreme Court decision as a driving force behind formally ending the practice of giving special treatment to alumni children in admissions.
"In the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding affirmative action, we believe it important to formally end admission preference for 'legacy applicants,'" he said earlier this week.
It's a stance Dr. Bahar Akman Imboden, the Managing Director of the Boston-based Hildreth Institute agrees with.
"The Supreme Court has made the decision to bring an end to affirmative action, and that will have some far-reaching implications for equity in higher education admissions," Imboden said in a phone interview with UPI.
Hildreth Institute is an independent research and policy institute aiming to "confront the inequities" within higher education admissions, including legacy admissions which Imboden noted has "favored families who have historically benefitted from the higher education system that was extremely racialized in a sense against people of color."
"So it is logical that since we are talking about legacy admissions, those who had benefited from a higher education that was essentially racist are now having an upper hand at admissions," she said.
In the wake of the Supreme Court affirmative action ruling, Black and Latino community groups filed a lawsuit before the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights seeking to end Harvard's use of legacy admissions, alleging they are discriminatory.
"The need for the Department of Education to put a stop to this discriminatory practice is particularly acute now that the Supreme Court has severely limited the use of race as a factor in higher education admissions processes, which is expected to have a negative impact on campus diversity," the complaint said. "The fact is that, if the Donor and Legacy Preferences did not exist, more students of color would be admitted to Harvard."
The complaint filed by The Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England and the Greater Boston Latino Network asserts that Harvard's legacy admissions violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that bans recipients of federal funding from excluding individuals on the basis of their race, color, or national origin.
The June U.S. Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action in higher education admissions said that universities and colleges can't use race as a factor.
That decision, says Imboden, makes the process of ending legacy admissions more relevant than ever.
"What is also very concerning is that, to us it feels a little dishonest because we talk about fairness, we talk about ending affirmative action because it's based on race and not merit. But these practices that primarily favor the White, affluent and privileged students, are known to also not at all be related to the actual aptitude of the student," Imboden told UPI, adding she does think the lawsuit against Harvard has merit.
However, race is a factor in legacy admissions, according to the groups who filed the civil rights complaint.
They say based on admissions data submitted with their complaint that based on thousands of applicant files produced by Harvard during the Supreme Court case that legacy admissions "have a disproportionately negative impact on applicants of color."
Lawyers for Civil Rights litigation fellow Michael Kippins said in a statement when that complaint was filed that it is "imperative that the federal government act now to eliminate this unfair barrier that systematically disadvantages students of color."
"I was surprised to see the statistics myself but when I looked at the complaints, they stated that nearly 70% of Harvard applicants have rich family ties to donors or alumni worldwide. The numbers are shocking. I always knew that they existed but not to that level," says Imboden, of the ongoing Harvard case.
Some efforts to end legacy admissions predate the affirmative action ruling as schools such as Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California system and Amherst College had already ended the practice as of late 2021.
Two Democratic U.S. Representatives, Jamaal Bowman of New York and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, also introduced the Fair College Admissions for Students Act in 2022 also asserting that legacy admissions work to benefit White applicants.
In a statement when the bill was introduced Bowman said, "The legacy admissions practice which disproportionately benefits rich, White, and connected students, and has antisemitic and anti-immigrant roots, creates another systemic barrier to accessing higher education for low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students."
Twenty education organizations sent an open letter to college and university presidents and trustees in 2021 urging them to end legacy admissions that they believe are "rooted in a history of ugly discrimination."
"To this day, the legacy preference continues to favor wealthy, White families that have lived in America for generations and benefited from past racial segregation and discriminatory policies," the letter said.
The Hildreth Institute is one of the letter's signatories.
"It's a little more urgent now. We always believed that legacy was not the right admission practice for any college, whether they are private or public. But especially with this ruling that will penalize more students from underserved backgrounds, it's essential that we end it," says Imboden.
Some opponents argue major institutions won't move away from the practice over fears of losing millions of dollars in vital donor contributions, but Imboden says those fears are overblown.
"Many university administrators have resisted calls to end legacy admissions practices due to the fear of losing alumni donations. But there are a couple of (pieces of) research that have shown the actual impact on fundraising is minimal. So those studies kind of debunk the notion that continuing legacy practices will significantly affect alumni contributions," Imboden told UPI.
Wesleyan's president hopes many other universities will choose to end legacy admissions, too.
"I hope that many American colleges and universities will use their resources to do much the same, by ending legacy preferences and expanding access to their educational programs," he said in a CNN opinion piece.
Aside from court-ordered changes, Imboden believes appealing to a school's alumni could also have the desired effect.
"I do believe that many of the alumni that have themselves benefited from legacy, in this political climate, might decide that they are willing to give it up for the right cause," she told UPI.