In response to the “Varsity Blues” scandal, California passed some college admissions reforms that took effect in 2020. One was to require California colleges and universities to disclose what percentage of their student body is admitted as legacy students – students whose parents or other close relatives also attended the school.
It may seem like legacy admission preferences aren’t a big deal, especially when compared to the allegations of fraud and bribery in the “Varsity Blues” scandal.
However, according to the Associated Press, the University of Southern California admitted more legacy students this year than it did African-American students. At other elite colleges, legacy students make up 10% to 20% of this year’s entire class.
Things might be changing. There are already no legacy preferences at the UC schools. The state of Colorado has outlawed their use in public universities. At least two elite colleges have voluntarily ended the practice. And a bill currently before Congress aim to eliminate legacy preferences nationwide. Should it pass?
Are legacy preferences predominantly a gift to white, wealthy people?
One argument against legacy preferences is that a legacy boost tends to advantage just the students who least need it. Students whose parents attended an elite university are already likely to have access to life and educational supports that the average person may not.
Why give a boost to the more privileged among us? After all, most colleges and universities are under pressure to open themselves to more students of diverse backgrounds.
There is also some evidence that the history of legacy preferences is steeped in racism. Legacy preference policies date to the 1920s, when top educational institutions were attempting to limit how many Jews were admitted. Moreover, many schools with legacy preference policies didn’t begin admitting African Americans until the 1960s.
Those who were historically excluded from admission to these colleges are simply less likely to have an alumni connection than their white peers. This is merely a factor of how many generations of their families went to elite colleges.
Would getting rid of legacy preferences now disadvantage people of color?
An argument against ending the legacy preference system is that it is now, finally, beginning to apply to students of color. Although they are less likely than their white peers, on average, to have an alumni connection, there is a growing number of people of color who do.
Their parents worked hard to get an elite college education. Shouldn’t they be given their turn at passing the legacy to their children?
What do you think should be done to make college more accessible? What would be fair? What would be just?
Leigh Law Group represents students in education law cases across California.