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Why It’s Time for Legacy College Admissions to Go

Imagine high schools across the country adopt a new rule for track meets: If years earlier, a prospective student’s parent had competed for their high school, that student would get a head start. If and when this rule sparks talk of unfairness, the athletic muckety-mucks respond that it’s helpful in getting those parents to donate money and forging “a sense of intergenerational community.”

Absurd? Well, it’s more or less what about half of four-year colleges— and four in five highly selective colleges (those admitting fewer than 25% of applicants)—do each year, a tactic known as legacy status. While these colleges awkwardly try to explain that legacy status is just a “tiebreaker” between equally qualified students, research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education finds that having had mom or dad be an alum can triple the odds that an applicant will be admitted. And unlike the partisan debate surrounding private school vouchers, ending legacy preferences is one place where the right and left should be able to find common ground.

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Read more: How School Voucher Programs Hurt Students

For liberals, legacy preferences violate important equality principles. Legacy preferences began as a way to limit Jewish enrollment at Ivy League Colleges and today disproportionately hurt students of color. At a time when policymakers are seeking ways to promote social mobility, ending preferences that reward kids for being born into college-educated families is a no-brainer. This is doubly so because data from multiple studies find that attending a selective college can be a life-changing event for low-income students, catapulting them onto a different economic trajectory. Filling up seats with legacy admittees is not a victimless crime.

For conservatives, this is about hypocritical college leaders (who talk endlessly about “equity”) stacking the deck for the privileged and connected. Legacy admissions allow rent-seeking college officials to sell fast-passes to good jobs and graduate school, pocketing dollars that subsidize their agenda-driven programming and bloated bureaucracies. The result makes it harder for less prestigious regional colleges or entrepreneurial start-ups to raise funds, while encouraging alumni to steer contributions to deep-pocketed institutions.

To add insult to injury, legacy preferences further offend both liberal and conservative sensibilities by requiring taxpayers to subsidize this corrupt system. When a wealthy alum donates money to a school in order to boost the chances of their child being admitted, they can write off the donation, leaving other taxpayers on the hook for covering half or more of the total bill.

So, how do legacy preferences survive? In part, colleges have done a good job of propagating the dubious claim that legacy preferences raise funds that are used to aid low income students (as opposed to underwriting administrative salaries, modish business schools, and extravagant facilities). (And, if elite institutions were truly worried about their low-income students, they could dip into their endowments.)

But the truth is that the survival of this anachronistic practice is a classic example of interest groups politics at work. A 2022 Pew Research poll found that 75% of Americans oppose legacy preferences. But an ardent minority of college officials and alumni groups love them (the former because it gives them an important carrot they can wave at alumni and the latter for the advantages they confer on their kids), and the higher education lobby has stymied even modest efforts to advance reform.

Civil rights groups, locked arm-in-arm with universities in a fight to defend racial affirmative action, have avoided a rift by staying silent on legacy preference policies.

That will no longer be the case if the U.S. Supreme Court upends racial preferences later this year, as many observers expect. Legacy preferences have always been hard to defend, but will be even more glaringly indefensible if racial preferences come to an end. As Yale law professor Justin Driver argues, “If the Supreme Court outlaws affirmative action, legacy preferences will not be long for this world.” In fact, when UC Berkeley, UCLA, Texas A&M and the University of Georgia stopped using race in admissions, they dropped legacy preferences as well.

If there are colleges or universities which refuse to follow suit, Congress should act to pass a version of Fair College Admissions for Students Act now and cut off federal funding for research and scholarships for any institution that uses legacy preferences. What’s more, Congress should direct the IRS to enforce existing regulations to no longer permit alumni to deduct donations to colleges which use legacy preferences. To be tax deductible, gifts should not enrich the donor.

The measure of an educational institution committed to equality of opportunity is not its ability to curate a privileged student body. It is, however, dependent on its commitment to welcoming all who have earned their spot. Legacy admissions could not be more antithetical to those goals. All those college presidents who like to lecture the nation about its shortcomings must, in their bones, recognize that legacy admissions is as hypocritical as it is destructive.