GOLDEN, Colo. — Half a dozen nervous-looking high school students and their parents browse a table of pamphlets and freebies, then settle into molded plastic chairs to hear a hyper-enthusiastic admissions officer sing the praises of the Colorado School of Mines.
After a spirited welcome and a reminder to stay hydrated at this elevation (5,675 feet), she plays a video with peppy music, scenes of happy undergraduates enjoying fun traditions and the inevitable soaring drone footage of majestic campus landmarks.
A hunk of calcite from a mine in Tennessee in a display case in the waiting area is among the few things other than the name of this public university to evoke its early focus on mining during the region’s hardscrabble 19th-century gold and silver boon.
Children of alumni are between three and eight times more likely to be admitted to universities that give preference to legacy candidates.
Today, Mines is highly ranked in engineering, science, energy and environmental studies and math, and it’s the toughest state university in Colorado to get into, with fewer than half of its applicants accepted.
And these prospective applicants will be the first to miss out on a onetime advantage: the special preference in admission previously given to the children of alumni.
With little national attention, Colorado in the spring became the first state to ban the controversial privilege of legacy admission at public universities, effective with the application cycle that begins in August.
The ban is largely symbolic; several public universities in Colorado had already dropped the practice or never used it. And only 14 percent of public universities nationwide give preference to the children of alumni, compared to 43 percent of private, nonprofit colleges and 73 percent of the most selective institutions, according to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
But it’s a rebuke of what critics call one of the most glaring advantages in higher education enjoyed by white and higher-income families, an advantage that has survived broad public opposition, the Varsity Blues bribery scandal and embarrassing disclosures about preferences exposed by a lawsuit alleging bias in admissions against Asian Americans at Harvard. Legacy admission also appears to be withstanding the resurgence of the racial and social justice movement following the killing of George Floyd.
In fact, a study released in the spring suggests that the admissions advantage for legacy applicants is getting bigger, not smaller. The study focused on Harvard, which was forced by that lawsuit to disclose admissions statistics that are normally kept secret, but coauthor Tyler Ransom, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Oklahoma, said he’d be “shocked if we didn’t see similar figures at all of the Ivies.”
Now a group of current students and recent graduates of the nation’s most selective universities and colleges, almost all of them private, plan a campaign in the fall to discourage alumni from making financial donations until the schools abandon legacy admission.
The planned boycott raises the question: Will Americans who benefit from legacy admission voluntarily surrender their advantage?
For every alumnus who might object, “there’s probably more that see this as a step in the right direction,” said Viet Nguyen, a Brown University graduate and now a master’s degree candidate at Stanford and a leader of the campaign, which is being spearheaded by the EdMobilizer coalition of students who were the first in their families to go to college.
“A lot of students and alumni have seen the ways in which the admissions process is very much tilted toward the wealthy, and legacy admission is another example of creating that generational privilege,” said Nguyen, a first-generation student himself.
“My kids will be in a very different place than I was. There’s no reason why they’ll need an additional leg up in addition to all the advantages they’ll have as a result of the fact that I went to these schools.”
In Colorado, the legacy admission ban was largely prompted by a desire to increase college-going among low-income and Hispanic high school graduates, who now enroll at rates about a third lower than white and middle- and higher-income students.
“This law makes sure that just because your parent or grandparent went to one of our colleges in Colorado, that doesn’t mean that you automatically get in. Because that could take the spot from somebody who is more worthy of that spot.”Colorado Gov. Jared Polis
“This law makes sure that just because your parent or grandparent went to one of our colleges in Colorado, that doesn’t mean that you automatically get in,” Gov. Jared Polis said when he signed the measure into law. “Because that could take the spot from somebody who is more worthy of that spot.”
On the same day, Polis signed a separate bill making standardized admissions tests such as the SAT and ACT permanently optional at public universities.
Advocates hope these two measures combined will encourage more students to apply to universities who might not have considered it before.
“We’re all trying to get the message across that college is for you,” said Dale Gaubatz, executive director of admissions at Mines, where he said 14 percent of students enrolled up until now have been the children, siblings, nieces or nephews of alumni.
Going test optional, as Mines did last year during the Covid-19 pandemic, seems to have already had a significant impact. Nearly half of this year’s applicants did not submit test scores, said Lori Kester, associate provost for enrollment management, and she said the incoming class is the largest, most academically competitive and most diverse ever.
“It planted a seed that they could also go to Mines,” said Kester, in a conference room in the admissions office. Making the SAT and ACT optional forever and removing the box on the application to check off whether a student is related to a graduate of the university means prospective applicants “see fewer barriers. It’s not all going to depend on this four-hour exam they have to take. It won’t depend on whether your parents or your siblings went to Mines.”
In many other places, however, it still does.
This puts applicants who are not white at a particular disadvantage, since they are far less likely to have parents who went to college at all. More than half of white students have at least one parent who attended college, compared to about a quarter of Black and Native American and a fifth of Hispanic students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Records pried open by the affirmative action case at Harvard revealed that 70 percent of legacy applicants there are white compared to 40 percent of applicants in general. A large proportion would not have been accepted if they hadn’t had family connections to the school, an analysis suggested.
“It isn’t fair,” said Michelle Nolen, a graduate student at Mines who was walking on the campus with a classmate and who said she benefited herself from the fact that her parents went to the University of Arkansas, which she attended as an undergraduate. “It keeps giving the advantage to people who already have it.”
Nearly 60 percent of Americans in a poll last year by New America said getting into a college should not be easier for some people just because they had parents who went there.
“In general, Americans like the idea of admissions being a meritocracy and don’t like the idea of any sort of admissions preference that might not be based on merit,” said Rachel Fishman, deputy director for research in the think tank’s higher education program. “And legacy is one of those things not based on merit.”
New America is calling for colleges that continue to give preference to legacy applicants to lose their access to taxpayer-funded federal financial aid programs.
“This law makes sure that just because your parent or grandparent went to one of our colleges in Colorado, that doesn’t mean that you automatically get in. Because that could take the spot from somebody who is more worthy of that spot.” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis
“In general, Americans like the idea of admissions being a meritocracy and don’t like the idea of any sort of admissions preference that might not be based on merit.”Rachel Fishman, deputy director for research, higher education program, New America
California, after the Varsity Blues scandal, didn’t ban legacy admission but did require universities and colleges whose students receive state financial aid to annually disclose how many applicants they accept through the practice. Stanford, for example, reported that 16 percent of students who entered the year the law was passed were children of alumni; its overall acceptance rate was just over 4 percent that year.
And in response to the resurgence of the racial and social justice movement that followed the killing of George Floyd, alumni of, and students and faculty at, Georgetown University — where legacy applicants are twice as likely to be admitted as non-legacy applicants — demanded that Georgetown abandon legacy admission. Harvard students, faculty and alumni have also formed a group to call for ending legacy admission.
Scholars have come to varying conclusions about how much these changes might widen access to selective universities.
Making standardized entrance exams optional increased the share of low-income and Black, Hispanic and Native American students at private colleges by 1 percentage point, one study found. Another study found that schools that went test optional became no more diverse.
Testifying in a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina, Peter Arcidiacono, a professor of economics at Duke, said that removing legacy preferences would have little effect on the racial and ethnic composition of the admitted class, though that was partly because the number of legacy applicants was low.
But at Johns Hopkins University, which announced in 2019 that it had ended legacy admission, the proportion of students who are children of alumni has fallen from about 13 percent to about 4 percent while the percentage who are low income has increased from 9 percent to 19 percent, the university reports. (Other places that don’t give preference to legacy applicants include MIT and CalTech.)
It’s simple math, said David Phillips, Johns Hopkins’ vice provost for admissions and financial aid: “Most schools have a fixed number of spots in your class, so if you want to increase flexibility to diversify your class, programs like [legacy admission] would not allow you to maximize that goal.”
Meanwhile, Phillips said, “when you’re recruiting and you’re talking about your mission and goals, not having legacy helps students see that you’re making a statement that your school is open to everyone.”
Universities that practice legacy admission argue that families whose children are admitted this way are more loyal.
“The No. 1 reason,” Ransom, the University of Oklahoma economist, said bluntly, “is donations.”
A Harvard committee that studied how to increase diversity at the university defended legacy admission as serving “important institutional values and interests,” including by “cement[ing] strong bonds between the university and its alumni.” The resulting financial support, it said, helped provide financial aid to students from racial and ethnic minority groups and families with low incomes.
“Eliminating any consideration of whether an applicant’s parent attended Harvard or Radcliffe would diminish this vital sense of engagement and support,” the committee wrote.
That focus on the money is what Nguyen and his group are counting on.
“A lot of students and alumni have seen the ways in which the admissions process is very much tilted toward the wealthy, and legacy admission is another example of creating that generational privilege.”Viet Nguyen, a Brown University graduate helping plan a boycott of donations to colleges that practice legacy admission
“There’s a fear of alumni and this boogeyman of will it impact donations and how favorably alumni view the school,” he said. By organizing a donations boycott, “we’re taking that fear and hopefully using it to push them to do good in the world.”
Among Johns Hopkins alumni, Phillips said, “there were some mixed feelings” to the end of legacy admission. “There were certainly some alumni that expressed disagreement with it, but there were many, many alumni who reached out to me to say how proud they were of the institution taking this position.”
What’s happening in Colorado could revive that conversation elsewhere, said Mamie Voight, interim president at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
“Yes, it is symbolic, but there’s likely some practical impact of it, too,” Voight said of the Colorado ban. “There is a direct and a growing recognition of how legacy admission perpetuates inequities that already exist within our system.”
But some long-term observers predict that legacy admission will weather this storm, too.
Universities that practice legacy admission “have always been like this, and they’re always going to be like this, and it’s a really key part of their identity,” Ransom said. “I’m skeptical that anything will change.”
This story about legacy admission was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.