New York considers banning legacy college admissions

New York may soon join the ranks of states that have banned legacy admissions in the college application process. This controversial practice, which has faced criticism for its perceived bias towards white or affluent students with family alumni connections, could be eliminated.

State Senator Andrew Gounardes, in an interview with ABC News, compared legacy admissions to affirmative action for privileged kids.

Legacy admissions have faced increased scrutiny ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in 2023 to restrict race-based affirmative action programs in higher education institutions.

According to Columbia University, Harvard University, Cornell University, and other institutions that practice legacy admissions, when two applicants have comparable qualifications, the “legacy” candidate is given a preference or slight advantage.

The Fair College Admissions Act is being championed by several New York legislators as a potential solution to the long-standing problem of racial inequality in education. This act aims to tackle the persisting issues that have been rooted in historical discrimination for many decades.

According to Gounardes, it seemed fundamentally unjust and unfair for the Supreme Court to invalidate affirmative action policies and programs while allowing legacy admissions to continue, as legacy admissions essentially function as another form of affirmative action for a specific group of individuals.

According to research findings, legacy applicants tend to be admitted at higher rates, despite not being more qualified or academically superior to other applicants. Additionally, legacy applicants are typically less racially diverse compared to the overall applicant pool.

A study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Colorado-Boulder analyzed extensive data spanning 16 years, focusing on an undisclosed prestigious university. The research revealed that legacy applicants had a significantly higher admission rate, with 34.2% being admitted, compared to only 13.9% of non-legacy applicants. It is worth noting that the majority of legacy applicants were white and came from more affluent backgrounds. These students predominantly hailed from ZIP codes characterized by higher average incomes and were less likely to seek financial aid when submitting their applications. Furthermore, the university identified these legacy applicants as having a strong potential for future donations.

According to Ethan Poskanzer, a professor and researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, college admissions are driven by various objectives. He highlights three key goals that colleges aim to achieve: admitting students based on merit, seeking students who can provide financial support, and fostering a diverse student population.

Poskanzer explained that while the goals of diversity, academic excellence, and fairness in college admissions may all seem reasonable, the reality is that when it comes to choosing which applicants to admit, these goals often clash with each other. This creates a zero-sum situation where prioritizing one goal means sacrificing another.

Jonathan Lam, a first-generation Cornell University student and child of Vietnamese refugees, is part of a student collective that seeks to reform college admissions policies. As someone who has personally faced the barriers and obstacles in the college application process, Lam understands the importance of breaking down these barriers for future generations. His parents, lacking any connections to the university, were also unaware of the intricacies involved in college admissions preparations.

In his statement, the 18-year-old expressed his hope that eliminating legacy admissions policies would break down barriers for students like him in their pursuit of higher education.

Lam expressed her belief that many students from backgrounds similar to hers are often unable to attend prestigious schools. She sees the elimination of legacy admissions as a crucial step towards achieving more equitable admissions and ensuring greater access to education for all.

In a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2019, it was revealed that nearly half of the white students at Harvard University were either recruited athletes, had connections to alumni, were children of faculty and staff, or held special significance to the dean of admissions. This highlights the various factors that played a role in the admissions process at the prestigious institution.

According to the 2019 report, candidates in these categories accounted for less than 5% of applicants to Harvard. However, they made up approximately 30% of admitted students.

A number of advocacy groups have lodged a federal civil rights complaint against Harvard College, resulting in an investigation by the Department of Education into Harvard’s practices relating to legacy and donor preferences.

According to ABC News, Harvard has announced that it is currently reviewing its admissions policies following the Supreme Court decision. The university aims to ensure compliance with the law while upholding its longstanding commitment to welcoming students with exceptional talent and promise from diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences.

In a statement, Harvard expressed its commitment to opening doors to opportunity and increasing efforts to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to apply for admission. The university emphasized that this work will continue moving forward.

According to supporters of legacy admissions, universities and colleges benefit financially from this practice. Research has confirmed this claim, as it has found that legacies tend to come from families who are generous donors. These families are more inclined to donate even after they graduate and are less likely to require financial aid. Additionally, legacies are more likely to accept offers of admission, thereby providing a steady revenue stream for the college. Poskanzer stated, “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.”

According to a study conducted by Pew Research, 75% of Americans are of the opinion that a student’s connection to an alumnus should not be taken into consideration during the admissions process.

According to Education Reform Now, a nonprofit education advocacy group, over 40% of institutions in New York State utilize some form of legacy admissions preference.

According to Gounardes, the current system of college admissions is fundamentally unjust and creates additional challenges for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. This includes first-generation students, immigrants, working-class individuals, and those who do not come from privileged backgrounds. These students face significant obstacles in securing a place at prestigious universities, despite their potential and qualifications.

If the bill becomes law, schools that do not eliminate their legacy admissions policy will be required to allocate 10% of their tuition revenue to the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for low-income students.

New York is set to join the ranks of Colorado, Maryland, and Virginia in prohibiting these practices, further solidifying the bans that numerous colleges across the country have already put into place.

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