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

todayAugust 2, 2023

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

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/AP
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 Carolina violated 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 admissions at 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

A study 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 EMERGE that 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

Transcript :


Let’s hear now from Ivory Toldson, who is national director of education, innovation and research at the NAACP, the civil rights group which has called the practice of legacy admissions “inherently racist.” That’s a quote. Good morning.

IVORY TOLDSON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Millions of people listen to this program. So surely there is somebody, maybe multiple people out there listening right now who is asking, why is it racist to send my kid to Harvard?

TOLDSON: It’s not racist to send your kids to Harvard. But what we are saying is that in light of the Supreme Court decision, institutions have to look for creative ways in order to advance the type of diversity that they say is important. And when we look at the things that institutions do – and we have our diversity-no-matter-what pledge – one of the things that we observed is that legacy admissions compromise the institution’s ability to create that diverse environment. When you have slots that are available to students whose parents donate a lot of money or who graduated from the institutions, that’s overwhelmingly white. And so that’s why we’re saying that legacy admissions, donors’ children, that needs to be examined, scrutinized and abolished.

INSKEEP: Are you essentially saying that now that the Supreme Court has done away with considering race as a factor in admissions, legacy also has to go? They effectively were a pairing?

TOLDSON: Yeah, because race-conscious admissions balanced that out a bit. The universities have their own arguments for having legacy admits, but they were able to balance that by using a variety of different factors to achieve the type of diversity that they say is important. And so now that race-conscious admissions has been outlawed by the Supreme Court, then you have to look at other ways in order to achieve that diversity. One of those things being eliminating the legacy admissions.

INSKEEP: I’m curious if legacy admissions were to stay around for another 20 years, if we’d have a different opinion of them, because some schools – I believe Harvard is one of them – have reached the point where the incoming student body tends to be majority minority, more people of color than other kinds of people. Would the legacy issue maybe look different for us a generation from now?

TOLDSON: Yeah. Well, across the board, the student body is becoming more and more diverse. Harvard still has an underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students, and so they have a lot more Asian students than they had before. So legacy would look different, but it still would be a disadvantage to Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students.

INSKEEP: When we get down to it, is the real issue here money? Some people have more of it. Some people have a lot more of it. And whether they’re a legacy admissions or not, wealthy families, according to study after study after study after study, have lots of different advantages in preparing their kids for getting into the schools that they want.

TOLDSON: No, because Black and Hispanic and Indigenous students who applied to Howard (ph) and who got in through race-conscious admissions policies were very well qualified. They had the qualifications that it took to get into Harvard. But the problem is that Harvard receives thousands of more applicants than they can accommodate, so they have to be able to make some strategic decisions on who they’re going to accept when everybody is qualified.

INSKEEP: Oh, I see what you’re saying. You’re saying it’s not that the wealthy kids were best prepared. They were just best prepared to get the slot, in other words.

TOLDSON: Yes. The wealthy kids are not better prepared than the students of color. The real issue is institutional racism. It’s people who have had access to things that others didn’t have access to when it was illegal.

INSKEEP: Ivory Toldson of the NAACP. Thanks so much.

TOLDSON: All right. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Written by: NPR

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