Top schools begin dropping legacy admissions after affirmative action ruling

Wesleyan and Carnegie Mellon made the changes in the wake of last month’s Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action.

Participants march and chant slogans at a rally protesting the Supreme Court's ruling against affirmative action
Participants at a Harvard University rally on July 1 protesting the Supreme Court's ruling against affirmative action. (Ziyu Julian Zhu/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Two top colleges are dropping the use of legacy admissions as criticism of the practice continues to mount in the wake of last month’s Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.

On Tuesday, Wesleyan University announced it would stop giving prospective students an advantage if they were the children of alumni. The Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported Sunday that Carnegie Mellon University would no longer be considering relationships with alumni in its admissions process.

“An applicant’s connection to a Wesleyan graduate indicates little about that applicant’s ability to succeed at the University, meaning that legacy status has played a negligible role in our admission process for many years,” president Michael Roth said in a statement.

In a statement to the Tribune Review, a spokesman for Carnegie Mellon said, “Each applicant is evaluated by the same criteria irrespective of legacy status. CMU does this to ensure equity throughout the admission process for all students.” Also according to the Tribune Review, the University of Pittsburgh stopped considering relations to alumni in its process in 2020.

The moves follow the Supreme Court ruling in June against the use of race-conscious admissions for colleges, which reignited efforts to eliminate the process of giving favorable treatment to children of alumni, although that wasn’t reflected in recent data.

The case against legacy admissions

A view of the Wesleyan University campus
The Wesleyan University campus, located in Middletown, Conn. (Getty Images)

For years, activists have been calling for an end to legacy admissions, a benefit that is sometimes called affirmative action for rich white people. In an op-ed earlier this month, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who is Black, wrote, “The Supreme Court did not strike down affirmative action for everyone. It was just taken away for everyone that’s not wealthy and white.”

Harvard, which was the center of one of the Supreme Court cases, leans heavily on legacy admissions: A 2019 study found that 43% of white students at the university were legacies, athletes or related to donors, faculty or staff (often referred to as “ALDC,” a catchall term).

While ruling against affirmative action, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion that Harvard’s “preferences for the children of donors, alumni, and faculty are no help to applicants who cannot boast of their parents’ good fortune or trips to the alumni tent all their lives. While race-neutral on their face, too, these preferences undoubtedly benefit white and wealthy applicants the most. Still, Harvard stands by them.”

A Harvard student holds a sign during a rally protesting the Supreme Courts ruling against affirmative action
Another student protester at the Harvard rally against the affirmative action decision. (Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

According to Education Reform Now, a think tank focused on education policy, legacy admits make up roughly 10% to 25% of admissions at top universities. A recent survey by Generation Lab found that 3 out of 4 college students say it’s not fair for schools to consider legacy during the admissions process.

Some colleges — including Johns Hopkins, Amherst, the University of California system and public schools in Colorado — made the change to eliminate legacy admits prior to the Supreme Court ruling.

“Since 2013, the % of students in our incoming classes who have a family connection dropped from 8.5% to 1.7%, and % of first-generation or limited-income students rose from 16.7% to 30.8%,” Farouk Dey, vice president of the Johns Hopkins University, said in a tweet.

While examining why legacy admissions are still used in the 21st century, Emilio Castilla, professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that while they do not increase diversity or provide entry for students who are more qualified, they are economically beneficial.

“We found evidence that there are material interests — a lot of these legacy admits typically tend to be coming from richer families that are more likely to donate resources,” Castilla told Yahoo News last month.

Fallout from the Supreme Court ruling

Joe Biden
President Biden speaking about the Supreme Court's affirmative action decision on June 29. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In response to the affirmative action decision, President Biden said that “this is not a normal court” and that diversity is essential in higher education.

“I’m directing the Department of Education to analyze what practices help build more inclusive and diverse student bodies and what practices hold that back, practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity,” Biden said.

Just days after affirmative action was struck down, Harvard was sued over alleged discrimination in its admissions process by favoring the students of alumni who tend to be wealthy and white. The three minority advocacy groups cited the ruling in their suit.

“This preferential treatment has nothing to do with an applicant’s merit,” Lawyers for Civil Rights wrote in a news release announcing the lawsuit. “Instead, it is an unfair and unearned benefit that is conferred solely based on the family that the applicant is born into. This custom, pattern, and practice is exclusionary and discriminatory. It severely disadvantages and harms applicants of color.“

Last year, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, a first-of-its-kind bill that seeks to stop universities from giving special treatment to children of alumni and donors. The legislators promoted the bill in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling and celebrated the move by Wesleyan.

“Awesome news!” tweeted Bowman. “Shoutout [to Wesleyan] for ending legacy admissions. With the Supreme Court banning affirmative action, we need to make sure that wealthy, white students don’t get a leg up, either. Now let’s pass my bill to ban legacy admissions across the country!”