Legacy admissions for alumni children: the beginning of the end?

The University of Pennsylvania is easing off its system of legacy preferences, under which some elite US universities grant up to a third of places to descendants of alumni, with some experts predicting a nationwide flood of similar moves once race-based admissions are outlawed.

The Ivy League institution – without any public announcement or comment on the reasoning behind the shift – ended its practice of holding advising sessions for applicants from families of alumni and stopped suggesting that such students would benefit from using early-decision processes.

In recent years, as attention to social equity has escalated, Penn and other highly selective US universities have faced persistent pressure to end admissions preferences tied to family alumni status. That tension reached a high point with a lawsuit challenging Harvard University’s use of racial preferences in admissions. The case forced Harvard to release data showing that descendants of its alumni win about 30 per cent of places – at an institution that admits only about 4 per cent of all applicants.

Yet Harvard and most other elite institutions have largely resisted that pressure, given the importance of satisfied alumni to fortifying institutional fundraising efforts. Of the 64 US universities that admit less than a quarter of their applicants, 80 per cent still employ a legacy preference, according to data compiled last year by the research and advocacy group Education Reform Now.

The US Supreme Court is due to rule this summer on the Harvard case – as well as on a companion case challenging affirmative action practices at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; its decision is almost certain to end or at least greatly restrict race-based admissions policies. Some experts see that ruling as almost sure to collapse legacy preferences.

“I think legacy admission is on its last legs,” said Brian Taylor, the managing partner of Ivy Coach college counselling service.

“Legacy preferences are very difficult to justify under any circumstances,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce, “but they will become even harder to justify if universities can’t use race in admissions.”

Others are less certain, but recognise that a formal end to race-based preferences will make it extremely difficult for institutions to maintain a level of racial diversity in their student bodies if they do not somehow stop allocating a large share of their places to students on the basis of family ties.

“There’s a very good chance that once the Supreme Court decides these cases about race-conscious admissions,” said James Murphy, a senior policy analyst at Education Reform Now, “a lot of institutions are going to have to look at legacy as something that needs to go, since we know it’s a barrier to campus diversity.”

Peter Arcidiacono, a professor of economics at Duke University whose analyses of admissions practices played a key role in the Harvard case, said he also expects a decline in formal legacy policies after the Supreme Court decision. But admissions practices are so cloaked in secrecy that selective universities could easily continue favouring the children of alumni without admitting what is taking place, he added. “If you don’t have any accountability, how do you change that?”

Laurie Kopp Weingarten, the president of One-Stop College Counseling, said the value of legacy admissions to fundraising and a sense of campus community was too great for most universities to give it up without a fight. “I see no sign at all that it’s on its last legs,” she added.

A few well-known institutions – including Johns Hopkins University and Amherst College – have in recent years announced their decisions to end legacy preferences. But Dr Murphy’s analysis listed several other institutions – including the University of Massachusetts Amherst, most of the public universities in Florida, and Pomona College – that, like Penn, phased out legacy admissions more quietly.

Penn’s holding of special assistance meetings just for legacy applicants was ended by its new dean of admissions, E. Whitney Soule, and was made public only by the campus student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, which discovered the shift on the Penn website.

Such lack of publicity, Dr Murphy said, likely reflects institutions recognising the widespread public rejection of legacy practices. “They know this is not anything to be proud of,” he said of Penn and other campuses that made quiet reversals, “and that three-quarters of Americans think this is unfair; most people who work in admissions think it’s unfair.”

Regardless of how the Supreme Court does rule on affirmative action, Dr Murphy said, the Biden administration should do more to collect data that show exactly what preferences universities are giving their legacy applicants and with what effect.

“And then we can honestly have a much better conversation about what the universities are doing, and how good a job they’re doing, using race-neutral alternatives and other factors to make a diverse class,” he said.

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