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Colleges are ending legacy admissions to diversify campuses post-affirmative action

Demonstrators protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 29, 2023, after the court struck down affirmative action in college admissions. Activists say they will sue Harvard over its use of legacy preferences for children of alumni.
Jose Luis Magana
Demonstrators protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 29, 2023, after the court struck down affirmative action in college admissions. Activists say they will sue Harvard over its use of legacy preferences for children of alumni.

Updated July 29, 2023 at 11:35 AM ET

Two Supreme Court decisions are changing the way students, educators and even the Biden administration are approaching higher education.

The first ruling ended affirmative action for public and private colleges. It declared that race conscious admissions programs at both Harvard and the University of North Carolinaviolated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The second put a halt to President Biden's student loan cancellation plan. Now the Biden administration is trying to find new ways to make college more accessible. The administration recently unveiled a new student loan repayment plan that will save borrowers thousands of dollars by keeping monthly payments low and preventing interest from accumulating.

This week, the administration's focus is on affirmative action: The U.S. Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into the practice of legacy admissionsat Harvard University, and on Friday, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited Wesleyan University, which recently got rid of legacy admissions.

Legacy admissions are on the chopping block

The federal inquiry comes after to three Boston-based groups — the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England and the Greater Boston Latino Network — filed a complaint with the Education Department against Harvard. It accuses the university of discriminating against Black, Hispanic, Asian and other non-white undergraduate applicants by showing preference for those who have family relationships with donors or alumni.

In a statement to NPR, Harvard spokesperson Nicole Rura said the university is reviewing its admissions policy to ensure it is "complying with the law and to carry forward Harvard's longstanding commitment to welcoming students from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences."

Ivory Toldson, the national director of Education Innovation and Research at the NAACP, said that legacy admissions compromise a university's ability to create a diverse student body. He said if colleges are committed to diversity, they should not be favoring applicants from wealthier backgrounds.

"Now that race conscious admissions has been outlawed by the Supreme Court, you have to look at other ways to achieve diversity," Toldson said during an interview for Morning Edition.

Toldson said legacy admissions should be abolished.

The impact of legacy admissions policies on a student body

Astudy released this week by the Harvard School of Economics showed that richer applicants are getting a leg up in the college admissions process. Students from affluent backgrounds are twice as likely to get into top colleges than students from more middle class backgrounds, even if the students have similar GPAs and SAT scores.

Admissions data cited in documents that were part of the affirmative action case revealed that nearly 70% of the university's legacy applicants were white — including applicants who have relationships with donors, those who are children of faculty or staff, and athletes applicants. And while legacy applicants make up less than 5% of applicants to Harvard, the data showed they constitute around 30% of the applicants admitted each year, the ruling cited.

Some schools have gotten rid of legacy admissions altogether.

Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts college in Connecticut that has a 16% acceptance rate, recently eliminated its legacy admissions policy. Wesleyan President Michael Roth told NPR's Leila Fadel, during an interview for Morning Edition, the decision to end the policy was a direct response to the Supreme Court ruling that effectively ended affirmative action as part of college admissions.

"It became clear to me that any advantage you give to incumbents, to people who already have advantages, is a glaring sign of unfairness," Roth said.

Other schools have done the same. The University of Minnesota Twin Cities also ended legacy admissions this month, and Colorado passed a state law banning the practice at all public colleges and universities.

"Not getting in" is just one concern for students

Whitney Gouche is vice president of a nonprofit called EMERGEthat serves high-achieving students from low-income areas in Texas. She said her students feel discouraged by the recent Supreme Court decision.

"We've explained to our students, that regardless of the decision, you still belong here, she said. "You have the merits to be a successful student at this campus."

Convincing students to apply isn't the easiest task — concerns about high cost are also on students' minds. Even if they get in, it could cost about $70,000 in tuition for an elite college like Wesleyan.

Roth said that while admitted students who qualify for financial aid will receive it at Wesleyan, the university has to do more to convince students to apply in the first place.

"We have to be very aggressive in recruiting students from places that haven't typically looked at schools like Wesleyan," Roth said.

Roth said that ending legacy admissions won't solve the more widespread problem of education disparities in the United States.

"Legacy admissions is attractive to talk about, but the real issues are elsewhere," Roth said.

This story was edited by Erika Aguilar.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mansee Khurana
[Copyright 2024 NPR]