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A new bill in Congress would end ‘legacy’ college preferences. Here’s why that matters.

‘Legacy’ admissions were introduced to keep elite schools White. My research finds that that’s hurting Black and Brown students today.

- February 14, 2022

This month, two members of Congress — Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) — introduced the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, a bill that would end legacy admissions at colleges and universities nationwide. Legacy admissions are formal and informal practices where schools give additional consideration to college applicants with a parent or other ancestor who’s an alumnus.

Banning legacy admissions policies addresses the white-supremacist foundations of higher education, which explicitly prohibited non-White students for more than 200 years. Schools originally introduced legacy policies to limit the number of non-White students admitted each year. Without this bill, elite colleges and universities will remain predominantly White, despite the changing racial landscape of the United States and the growing numbers of applications they receive from Black and Brown students.

But the impact of banning legacy consideration would go beyond changing admissions processes. It would limit the advantages of attending elite universities that legacy students receive over a lifetime. Entrance into these highly selective institutions is crucial to maintaining or increasing a person’s class identity and social status, in part dictating their potential for income and wealth generation. It includes access to exclusive networks of people, places and events. Attending these schools brings a great deal of social capital.

These graduates learn about job openings not available to the general public: HR professionals perceive them as having advanced skills, which influences who gets recruited or hired. And these graduates have a higher likelihood of landing a private-sector job, where the pay is much better. A 2015 U.S. Department of Education data point shows the median annual earnings of Ivy League graduates are more than double that of graduates from non-Ivy League schools; 10 years after graduation, Ivy Leaguers make well over $70,000 per year, $40,000 more than their non-Ivy counterparts.

But legacy admissions also affect college students’ experiences on campus. And this legacy of White dominance means that Black students often don’t feel like they belong, my research finds.

The history and long-term impact of legacy admissions

Prestigious schools began more heavily weighting “legacy” applications in the 1920s to respond to a spike in applications after World War I. At the time, schools were trying to keep from being flooded with immigrants and Jews. During the 1960s civil rights movement, as these same schools began admitting Black students, they amended these policies to minimize the number of Black students admitted. From the start, legacy policies successfully limited the percentages of non-Whites and non-Protestants in the student body.

With legacy admissions artificially keeping the percentage of White students high, these colleges and universities thus became what sociologist Victor Ray calls “racialized organizations,” where race shapes the institutions’ policies and practices in ways that mimic and reinforce society’s racial hierarchies. Race shapes who is present and who is not in higher education, how resources are allocated, the potential postgraduate return on students’ educational investment, and what experiences people have on campus.

The history of racial exclusion means that most legacy students at elite institutions continue to be White. For instance, nearly 70 percent of legacy applicants to Harvard are White. In Harvard’s Class of 2022, 36 percent of those admitted were legacy students. Consequently, the needs and perspectives of White students continue to dominate the campus culture and the formal and informal policies that govern it.

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Who feels like they belong?

To see who felt like they belonged, I administered an online survey to 360 undergraduates at a predominantly White liberal arts college in Pennsylvania over the 2017-2018 school year. In addition, I hired undergraduates themselves to interview an additional 34 students and to conduct a focus group with another 26 students. In both the surveys and interviews, we asked students where they feel safe and connected to others on campus; how they dealt with spaces where they felt unsafe or disconnected from the campus community; and whether they felt the institution itself supported their desire to feel safe and connected in those spaces.

All undergraduates on college campuses struggle with the question of whether and when they “belong.” Young people trying to find themselves and each other in new surroundings make for a chaotic environment. One of the advantages of legacy status is that those students arrive feeling already at least somewhat familiar with the institution. Black and Brown students consistently report a long list of barriers to fitting in. They report more difficulty adjusting to campus life; a lower sense of belonging; and a higher sense of feeling like impostors. These feelings likely contribute to the fact that Black and Brown students underperform their White peers in such measures as GPA, how long it takes to complete a degree, and overall graduation rates, as reported by the U.S. Education Department.

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When I think of home

American colleges and universities often promise potential students that the campus will feel like home. Being admitted to the most prestigious of these schools is supposed to mean you are welcomed into the family. But when the student body is predominantly White because of a long-standing policy expected to last into the future, minoritized students can have a hard time feeling as much comfort on campus as their White peers.

Legacy policies imply that students whose ancestors attended a school have a moral right to be there. It is home by association. In his Harvard application letter, future president John F. Kennedy wrote that part of his interest in the school was in wanting to go where his father did — and that it would provide a better education than any other school.

When almost one-third of the student population are legacy students, drawn from a pool that’s overwhelmingly and historically White, Protestant and male, the feeling of being a valid member of the Harvard “family” is implicitly limited to one group: White Protestant men.

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Jasmine Harris (@DrHarrisJay) is associate professor of African American studies and coordinator of the African American studies program at the University of Texas at San Antonio.