Legacy college admissions are peak white privilege. They should disappear faster.

·4 min read
Students walk out of Johnson Chapel at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., on April 24, 2019.
Students walk out of Johnson Chapel at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., on April 24, 2019.

“Now is the time” to end legacy admissions that favor children of alumni, the president of Amherst College said last week.

Excuse me? Seems like any time in the last 100 years would have been "the time." Five decades ago, as America was reckoning with the civil rights movement and integrating colleges and universities, would have been great.

To be fair, Amherst is one of the first selective institutions to take this step. It’s small (fewer than 2,000 students). It has a substantial financial aid program that it is now expanding. And from a practical standpoint, this may indeed be a good time to eliminate the preference. Elite schools like to cultivate financial support from loyal alumni families, but endowments have soared during the pandemic and they are flush. Amherst, for instance, went from $2.4 billion two years ago to nearly $3.8 billion now.

Still, it’s also fair to ask what took Amherst so long – and to hold other elite institutions accountable for preferences that benefit affluent white students at the expense of pretty much everyone else.

A big boost for the least needy

Amherst was founded 200 years ago, when legacy admissions did not exist. Sociologists Deborah L. Coe and James D. Davidson concluded in a 2011 study that they were introduced by Protestant colleges in the Northeast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amid an immigration wave and rising applications from Jewish and Catholic students. They have endured, spread and increasingly led to racial exclusion.

A 2019 study of Harvard admissions found that 43% of white students were athletes or related to alumni, donors, faculty or staff. “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,” the authors wrote.

Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on March 12, 2020.
Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on March 12, 2020.

Earlier research found that children of Harvard alumni have been at times twice as likely to be accepted as other applicants. At other selective schools, “having an alumni parent” was found to be more significant than minority status, geography or an outstanding interview in gaining admission.

Recent studies show legacy admissions are used at over 40% of private institutions and a much lower range of 6% to 14% at public institutions. State university systems in Georgia, California and Colorado are among those that do not favor legacy applicants.

Reclaiming her family's story: I sued Harvard to save my slave ancestors' legacy. Black people own rights to US history.

Here I should note that over the last 70 years, three people in my family – including me – attended the University of Michigan. All of us were New Yorkers. Did we get in on merit? On providing geographic diversity? Or was this affirmative action for legacies? In following my mother to Ann Arbor, did I deprive someone of a slot?

It’s certainly possible. The role of legacy preferences at Michigan has changed over the decades. In the past, such applicants have received bonus points in the admissions process. The school now says legacy status is not a factor in deciding whether to admit prospective students, but it is used for “context” – to calculate likelihood of enrollment.

White privilege that's 'under the radar'

Dartmouth sociologist Emily Walton, who teaches a course on race and ethnicity and whose most recent article is called “How Integration Failed,” said race is not a criterion in preference policies, yet "it ends up exacerbating systemic racism” in admissions. And while the “affirmative action” label can stigmatize minority students, she told me, "legacy students don’t have that stigma because there’s nothing about them that announces that. It goes under the radar.”

Ironically, rising pressure to scrap legacy admissions is raising awareness of this nearly invisible form of affirmative action – and underscoring why young people must learn not just about America's many triumphs but also about our tragic racial past and its destructive presence in our lives today.

Flashback: College students should take mandatory course on Black history, white privilege

We have seen a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol and the emergence of "racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists" as the nation’s top domestic threat. We are living through debates over removing Confederate monuments. This week we are witnessing the trial of those who organized the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. All of these topics cry out for classroom discussion.

That doesn’t mean critical race theory indoctrination, trash talk about America or laying a guilt trip on kids – controversies that Republican Glenn Youngkin is trying to put front and center in the Virginia governor’s race. It simply means honest talk about the way laws and customs have perpetuated racial exclusion in housing, employment, political participation and education. The legacy admission preference is one sliver of that history, and it should be disappearing much faster than it is.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amherst, Legacy admissions fuel racial exclusion, is white privilege

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