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Legacy Admissions: A Veiled Affirmative Action for the Wealthy


2023 09 20 15 25 21.625 0400

In her dissenting opinion of this summer’s Supreme Court cases tackling the issue of race conscious admissions, Justice Sotomayor wrote that “ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality.” Similar frustrations arise when we replace “race” with “income” in the statement. Disregarding income disparities will not lead to a more economically equal society. Just as acknowledging and addressing racial inequities is necessary for achieving racial and economic equality. Like many others, I have always been a translator as a child of immigrants, not just of languages but of opportunities. My parents instilled in me the value of hard work and education. From a young age, with language barriers, first-generation students often find themselves working more, supporting their families more, and assisting them in communication with the outside world – being translators at student-teacher conferences, over rental contracts, and with the bank tellers. This process is not just about making admissions fairer. It’s about providing more accessible opportunities for children and communities who have had to navigate complex systems through sheer determination and hard work. It’s about harnessing congressional power and student experiences to create a world where opportunities are abundant, regardless of one’s background or the legacy they carry.

Legacy admissions have long been discussed as a practice that gives preferential treatment to the children of alums in college admissions processes. Supporters of legacy admissions argue that the concept fosters a sense of community and tradition, encouraging alum support that can contribute significantly to a college’s financial well-being. This support may come from donations, mentorship, and networking opportunities. Supporters of legacy admissions also contend that these practices help maintain the stability and prestige of institutions – that are predominately selective. As for the constitutionality of legacy admissions policies, the issue has not gotten previous coverage in court, except in Rosenstock v. The Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina, where the district court found that legacy admissions challenged neither the Equal Protection Clause nor the Privileges and Immunities Clause. 

On the other hand, opponents of legacy admissions argue that such policies perpetuate inequality by benefitting individuals who are already privileged. One study published in the Journal of Labor Economics found that in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University case, “three-quarters of white [recruited athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff] admits would have been rejected absent their status.” Another study found that students hailing from the wealthiest one percent of American households have over double the likelihood of enrolling in the country’s most prestigious private colleges compared to students from middle-class backgrounds with similar SAT scores.

Legacy applicants often come from families with the means to afford quality education, test preparation, and other advantages that can enhance their chances of acceptance. In turn, this could disadvantage those who need more resources, creating an uneven playing field in college admissions.

If we examine the financial aspect of these policies, legacy admissions and affirmative action intersect in terms of disparate impacts. Legacy admissions have historically favored financially privileged people, who often have more resources to contribute to the college. Whereas affirmative action was an attempt to redress centuries of exclusion to access and level the playing field for students from historically marginalized communities, which often face financial disadvantages due to systemic inequalities. 

A legal complaint against Harvard College indicates that this practice disproportionately benefits primarily white students. The complaint highlights that nearly 70 percent of applicants who claim legacy ties are white, and these applicants are nearly six times more likely to secure admission than other candidates. Similarly, applicants with donor relations, who are also predominantly white, enjoy an even more substantial advantage, being nearly seven times more likely to be admitted. 

This skew in the admission process is concerning, especially considering that the class of 2019 was composed of approximately 28 percent legacy students. Critics argue that an applicant’s family background and financial status should not affect the admissions decision. Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers for Civil Rights, expressed his views on the matter, stating that one’s family heritage and financial circumstances should not determine their eligibility for admission. He emphasized that the college application process should be blind to such factors. 

The lawsuit also underscores the impact of legacy considerations on minority students. It points to instances where institutions have discontinued legacy admissions. It refers to research from the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggesting that the absence of legacy considerations would lead to higher acceptance rates for minority students. Additionally, the research posits that nearly a quarter of white students would not gain admission without the support of legacy preferences. 

Interestingly, the discourse surrounding legacy admissions has reached the Federal government’s executive branch. President Joe Biden weighed in, criticizing legacy admissions for widening privilege rather than creating equal opportunities. This sentiment aligns with the concerns raised by many who believe legacy admissions perpetuate inequality rather than promote diversity and fairness. 

In a context where Harvard and similar institutions continue to emphasize diversity-oriented admissions, despite a recent Supreme Court ruling, the issue of legacy admissions remains a focal point of debate. This highlights the tension between tradition and pursuing a more equitable and inclusive higher education landscape. As society grapples with these complex dynamics, the future of legacy admissions and their role in the broader push for diversity and equality in education remains uncertain. 

From a legal perspective, there is a notable difference between legacy admissions and affirmative action. While affirmative action has faced legal challenges, the Supreme Court has generally recognized its constitutionality under certain conditions, as long as it uses a holistic approach that considers various factors beyond race. Despite their potential financial disparities, legacy admissions have faced different legal scrutiny. Courts have generally upheld a college’s right to consider legacy status as a factor in admissions.

In the legal arena, legacy admissions and affirmative action represent distinct challenges and debates, reflecting the nuanced landscape of admissions policies. Legacy admissions and affirmative action have financial implications, albeit in different ways. Legacy admissions can perpetuate financial disparities by favoring those who are already privileged, while affirmative action seeks to address these disparities by providing opportunities to aspiring students from historically marginalized communities. The challenge lies in finding a balance between preserving traditions and fostering inclusivity, all while acknowledging the financial implications of these policies. When we examine the situation, it becomes evident that the issue of legacy admissions is complex and contentious, but one that must be addressed nonetheless. 

This debate isn’t just about legacy admissions; it’s about breaking down barriers and providing opportunities for marginalized communities who work tirelessly and jump through countless hurdles to make a better life. It’s about leveling the playing field so that hard work and determination are the keys to success, not just who your parents are or where they went to college. Perhaps doing away with legacy admissions is not the solution, but instead, using the resources from legacy donations to promote access to these institutions to minority communities. As we engage in this discussion, remember that behind the statistics and legal arguments are real people, real families, and real hard work. It’s time to open doors wider, dismantle barriers, and ensure that every individual, regardless of their background, has the chance to reach and contribute to the rich tapestry of our nation.

Nicoletta Kolpakov comes from nearly a decade in legislative and regulatory policy, working on congressional campaigns, national think tanks, and more recently in the tech sector. She is also a former Young Invincibles National Youth Advisory Board member representing Colorado and New York, and the National Board for Mental Health advising Well Being Trust, Active Minds, and Young Invincibles. She is also a J.D. candidate at New York Law School. These comments are her personal opinion and do not reflect the official position of Young Invincibles.