New York eyes ban on legacy college admissions

New York would join at least three other states in ending the practice.

May 15, 2024, 8:16 AM

New York could become the fourth state to ban legacy admissions in the college application process, a practice that has long been criticized as favoring white or wealthy students based on their familial alumni connections.

“Legacy admissions is simply affirmative action for privileged kids,” said State Senator Andrew Gounardes in an interview with ABC News.

Legacy admissions have come under heightened scrutiny following the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision to limit race-based affirmative action programs for colleges and universities.

According to the websites of Columbia University, Harvard University, Cornell University, and others who embrace legacy admissions, if two applicants have similar credentials, the preference or slight advantage is given to the "legacy" candidate.

Several New York legislators hope the Fair College Admissions Act will address ongoing issues of racial inequality that have persisted for decades due to historical discrimination in education.

"It struck us as inherently wrong and unfair that the Supreme Court would strike down affirmative action policies and programs but allow something like legacy admissions to stay put, which is affirmative action just for another group of people," said Gounardes.

Research has shown that legacy applicants are admitted at higher rates, but are not more qualified or academically superior applicants. They are also a less racially diverse population.

PHOTO: Cornell University campus.
Cornell University campus.
Matt Burkhartt/Getty Images

Research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Colorado-Boulder analyzed 16 years of data from an unnamed elite university, finding that 34.2% of legacy applicants were admitted, compared to 13.9% of non-legacy applicants -- most of them white, and most of them wealthier than their counterparts. These students are from ZIP codes with higher mean incomes and are less likely to apply for financial aid with their application. They are also flagged by the school as having high donor potential.

"College admissions are discussed with all these different goals that they want to accomplish," said Ethan Poskanzer, professor and researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He notes that the most prominent goals he found were that colleges are looking for students who merit admission, students who are financially supportive and a diverse student.

"Those things all sound reasonable, but then in the actual practice of it, choosing which applicant to admit or not often puts those different goals into a zero-sum situation, and they're often in direct conflict with one another," said Poskanzer.

PHOTO: New York University
New York University
John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

First-generation Cornell University student Jonathan Lam, a child of Vietnamese refugees, is part of a collective of students advocating to change college admissions polices in hopes of breaking down the barriers they experienced firsthand in applying to colleges. Not only did his parents lack connections to the university, but they also lacked the knowledge about college admissions preparations and processes.

The 18-year-old said he hopes that getting rid of legacy admissions policies will remove barriers for students like himself from accessing higher education.

"I think that there's so many students from my background that do not get the privilege to attend this school," said Lam. "If we could get rid of legacy admissions, I think that is a step toward a better pathway and a better direction that we can have for more equitable admissions and more equitable education access."

A 2019 National Bureau of Economic Research study of publicly released reports from Harvard University found that almost half of the university's white students were recruited athletes, related to alumni, children of faculty and staff or were "of special importance to the dean of admissions."

Candidates in these categories also make up less than 5% of applicants to Harvard but constituted around 30% of admitted students, according to the 2019 report.

Several advocacy groups filed a federal civil rights complaint against Harvard College, prompting an investigation from the Department of Education into Harvard’s practices surrounding legacy and donor preferences.

Harvard told ABC News after the Supreme Court decision that it is reviewing its admissions policies "to assure compliance with the law and to carry forward Harvard’s long-standing commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences."

The statement continued, "As this work continues, and moving forward, Harvard remains dedicated to opening doors to opportunity and to redoubling our efforts to encourage students from many different backgrounds to apply for admission.”

Supporters of legacy admissions say that its financially beneficial for universities and colleges, and researchers found that this is true: "Legacies come from families that are monetary donors, that donate more themselves when they're alumni, that are less likely to need financial aid, and they're more likely to accept their offers of admission which then gives the college like a steadier revenue stream," said Poskanzer.

The majority of Americans -- 75% of those surveyed in a Pew Research study -- believe a student's relationship to an alumni should not be a factor in admissions.

PHOTO: Columbia University
Columbia University
Barry Winiker/Getty Images

In New York, more than 40% of institutions in New York State use some form of legacy admissions preference, according to nonprofit education advocacy group Education Reform Now.

"It's inherently unfair and makes it harder for students -- first-generation, immigrant, working-class students, students who don't come from privilege -- to be able to get a ticket to an elite school, even though they might otherwise arrive there," said Gounardes.

If the bill passes into law, schools that fail to get rid of their legacy admissions policy will be forced to give up 10% of tuition revenue for the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for low-income students.

New York would join Colorado, Maryland and Virginia in banning these practices, reinforcing bans that hundreds of colleges have already implemented.