Legacy admissions: What you should know about the now-controversial college admissions practice

In the aftermath of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned a system known as affirmative action from being used in the college admissions process, the battle is shifting to a system that some have called "affirmative action for white people."

"Let’s be clear: affirmative action still exists for white people. It’s called legacy admissions," Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, said on Twitter.

"Now more than ever, there’s no justification for allowing this process to continue," said Viet Nguyen, a graduate of Brown and Harvard who leads Ed Mobilizer, a nonprofit that has fought legacy preferences since 2018, in an article published by the Associated Press. "No other country in the world does legacy preferences. Now is a chance to catch up with the rest of the world."

According to the AP, critics of legacy admissions also exist within the political right, with at least one Republican Party politician, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, calling for an end to legacy admissions. Sen. Scott is running for the GOP presidential nomination in the 2024 presidential election.

Here's what you should know about legacy admissions, and the controversy surrounding it.

What are legacy admissions?

According to a 2022 article published by the AP, legacy admissions, also known as legacy preferences, refers to a decades-old tradition of giving college applicants who are the children of an alumnus or alumni of the same school a boost in their application.

Historians, according to the AP, have traced legacy preference to the 1920s as elite colleges sought to limit the number of Jewish students. It continued for decades at a time when the vast majority of college students in the U.S. were white men.

What schools have legacy admissions?

According to the AP, most schools are not required to disclose how many legacy students they enroll, and many keep it private.

In the 2018 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors, which was conducted by the website Inside Higher Ed, in collaboration with Gallup, figures show that 42% of admissions directors at private colleges and universities said that legacy status is a factor in admissions decisions at their school. The figure for admissions directors at public institution is 6%.

In a 2022 report issued by think tank Education Reform Now, it is stated that the use of legacy preferences is more common among private colleges, and is especially prevalent in the Northeast. Legacy preferences in public universities are less common, and concentrated on the East Coast.

What's the impact of legacy admissions?

In a 2018 report issued by Education Reform Now, it is claimed that the odds of admission for legacy students are three times that of their counterparts.

According to a 2022 report issued by the same organization, figures from a 1997 study estimated that applying as a legacy student gives the applicant the equivalent advantage of earning an additional 160 points on the SAT.

How many students are admitted as part of legacy admissions?

The AP has reported that based on reports by the University of Southern California, 14% of 2022's admitted USC students had family ties to alumni or donors. Stanford reported a similar rate.

Both USC and Stanford are located in California, where state law requires schools to disclose the practice of legacy admissions.

In 2022, the AP reported that based on basic data they received from eight of the country's 30 most selective colleges, the share of legacy students in that year's freshman class averaged 12% for the eight schools.

Meanwhile, according to a report issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2019, over 43% of white students admitted at Harvard are considered to be in a category the report called "athletes, legacies, those on the dean's interest list, and children of faculty and staff" (ALDC).

How could legacy admissions affect students of color?

According to the AP, critics of legacy admissions say it contributes to persistently low numbers of Black students at top colleges. In addition, at many schools with legacy preferences, Black students were not admitted until the 1960s, said Michael Dannenberg, a vice president at the Education Reform Now think tank.

"White applicants have between eight and 16 generations of ancestors on which to establish an alumni connection," said Dannenberg, who has opposed the practice since he was an aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy, the late Massachusetts Democrat, two decades ago. "For the vast majority of Black and Latino applicants, there’s maybe one or two generations."

The report by NBER also states that for many of the white Harvard students who were admitted as ALDCs, they might not have been accepted to the school if they were treated like other applicants.

"Our model of admissions shows that roughly three quarters of white ALDC admits would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs," read a portion of the NBER report. "Removing preferences for athletes and legacies would significantly alter the racial distribution of admitted students, with the share of white admits falling and all other groups rising or remaining unchanged."

What's the argument for legacy admissions?

According to the AP, supporters of the policy say it builds an alumni community, and encourages donations.

Are there schools that have ended legacy admissions?


In 2020, Johns Hopkins University announced the university will end legacy preference in admissions.

"Serving as an engine of social mobility is core to our mission," said the university's Vice Provost for Admissions and Financial Aid, David Phillips, in the statement.

A year later, Amherst College announced that it will end legacy preferences.

"Now is the time to end this historic program that inadvertently limits educational opportunity by granting a preference to those whose parents are graduates of the College," said Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College, in a statement.

Amherst and Johns Hopkins were among the 28 schools listed in Education Reform Now's 2022 report as having ended legacy preferences since 2015. Other schools on the list include the California Institute of Technology, Florida State University, Pomona College, University of Florida, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On July 19, 2023, after the Supreme Court ruling on Affirmative Action, officials with Wesleyan University, which is located in Connecticut, announced that the school will end legacy admissions.

"By recruiting students, faculty and staff with diverse life experiences, attributes, and points of view, we continue to build a diverse, energetic learning environment comprised of people who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit," read a portion of the statement.

Have government officials taken action on legacy admissions?

In 2021, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed into a law a bill that bans state-supported higher education institutions from using legacy preferences.

In 2022, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Democratic Congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York introduced a bill that would ban "institutions that participate in federal student aid programs from admitting students based on family ties."

The bill, according to Congress's website, was referred to a legislative committee, but no further actions were taken.

What do people think about legacy admissions?

According to 2021 survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, 54% of the over 2,000 college students surveyed say they strongly support ending legacy admissions, while 25% say they somewhat support it.