COLLEGE CONTROVERSY. Viet Nguyen poses for a portrait on the Brown
University campus in Providence, R.I., in this February 14, 2017 file
photo. Nguyen, now an alumnus, helped lead an effort urging Brown and
other elite universities to rethink their legacy admissions policies.
(AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
From The Asian Reporter, V33, #7 (July 3, 2023), pages 10 &
Affirmative action for white people? Legacy college
admissions come under renewed scrutiny.
By Collin Binkley
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON ó The next big fight over college admissions already has
taken hold, and it centers on a different kind of minority group that
gets a boost: children of alumni.
In the wake of a Supreme Court decision that strikes down affirmative
action in admissions, colleges are coming under renewed pressure to put
an end to legacy preferences ó the practice of favoring applicants with
family ties to alumni. Long seen as a perk for the white and wealthy,
opponents say itís no longer defensible in a world with no
counterbalance in affirmative action.
President Joe Biden suggested colleges should rethink the practice
after the courtís ruling, saying legacy preferences "expand privilege
instead of opportunity." Several Democrats in congress demanded an end
to the policy in light of the courtís decision to remove race from the
admissions process. So did Republicans including senator Tim Scott of
South Carolina, who is vying for the GOP presidential nomination.
"Letís be clear: affirmative action still exists for white people.
Itís called legacy admissions," representative Barbara Lee, a California
Democrat, said on Twitter.
For critics of legacy admissions, the renewed debate over fairness in
admissions has offered a chance to swing public sentiment behind their
As colleges across the U.S. pledge their commitment to diversity
following the courtís ruling, activists have a simple response: prove
it. If schools want to enroll more Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous
students, activists say, removing legacy preferences would be an easy
"Now more than ever, thereís no justification for allowing this
process to continue," said Viet Nguyen, a graduate of Brown and Harvard
who leads Ed Mobilizer, a nonprofit that has fought legacy preferences
since 2018. "No other country in the world does legacy preferences. Now
is a chance to catch up with the rest of the world."
Using the Supreme Court decision as a catalyst, Nguyenís group is
rallying the alumni of top colleges to press their alma maters to end
the practice. The goal is to get graduates of the 30 schools to withhold
donations until the policy ends. The schools include Harvard and the
University of North Carolina, which were at the center of the court
case, along with the rest of the Ivy League and the University of
Southern California (USC).
It builds on other efforts taking aim at the practice. Colorado
banned it at public universities in 2021, and lawmakers in Connecticut,
Massachusetts, and New York have introduced similar bills. In congress,
representative Jamaal Bowman of New York and senator Jeff Merkley of
Oregon, both Democrats, are reviving legislation that would forbid it at
all universities that accept federal money.
Legacy preferences have become an easy target in the wake of a
Supreme Court decision that hinged on questions of merit in the college
application process, said Julie Park, who studies college admissions and
racial equity at the University of Maryland. Instead of getting in on
their own merit, she said, legacy students are just "standing on their
"Itís just low-hanging fruit," she said. "People want something to
do, and thereís a strong rationale to get rid of it."
Secretary Miguel Cardona urged colleges to "ask themselves the tough
questions," adding that legacy admissions and other types of special
treatment "have long denied well-qualified students of all backgrounds a
level playing field."
"In the wake of this ruling, they could further tip the scales
against students who already have the cards stacked against them,"
Cardona said in a statement to The Associated Press.
In the hazy world of college admissions, itís unclear exactly which
schools provide a legacy boost and how much it helps. In California,
where state law requires schools to disclose the practice, USC reported
that 14% of last yearís admitted students had family ties to alumni or
donors. Stanford reported a similar rate.
At Harvard, which released years of records as part of the lawsuit
that ended up before the Supreme Court, legacy students were eight times
more likely to be admitted, and nearly 70% were white, researchers
An Associated Press survey of the nationís most selective colleges
last year found that legacy students in the freshman class ranged from
4% to 23%. At four schools ó Notre Dame, USC, Cornell, and Dartmouth ó
legacy students outnumbered Black students.
Supporters of the policy say it builds an alumni community and
encourages donations. A 2022 study of an undisclosed college in the
Northeast found that legacy students were more likely to make donations,
but at a cost to diversity ó the vast majority were white.
Some prestigious colleges have abandoned the policy in recent years,
including Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University. In the first
year after dropping it, Amherst saw its share of legacy students in the
freshman class fall by about half, while 19% of first-year students were
the first in their families to attend college, the most in the schoolís
Some colleges argue that, as their student bodies become more
racially diverse, the benefits of legacy status will extend to more
students of color. Opponents argue that white families still have an
advantage, with generations of relatives who had access to any college.
Ivory Toldson went to college at Louisiana State University (LSU),
but it wasnít an option for his parents in the Jim Crow South.
"My parents couldnít legally go to LSU. Discrimination is a lot more
recent in our history than a lot of people seem to understand," said
Toldson, a Howard University professor and the director of education,
innovation, and research for the NAACP.
Toldson said thereís growing awareness of the irony that preferences
for athletes and legacy students are still allowed, while race must be
In May, an AP-NORC poll found that few Americans think legacy
admissions or donations should play much of a role in college
admissions. Just 9% say it should be very important that a family member
attended and 18% say it should be somewhat important. Likewise, only 10%
say donations to the school should be very important and 17% say that
should be somewhat important.
That same poll found that most Americans support affirmative action
in higher education but think race should play a small role. Sixty-three
percent said the Supreme Court should not block colleges from
considering race in admissions, but 68% said it should not be a big
Several colleges declined to say whether they will continue providing
a boost for legacy students next year, including Cornell and the
University of Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, Nguyen said heís more optimistic than ever. In the past,
colleges have been reluctant to be among the first to make the change,
he said. Now he thinks thatís changing.
"In the next few months, I think the hesitancy will actually be who
will be the last," he said. "No university wants to be the last."
The Associated Press education team receives support from the
Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all
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