With the Supreme Court striking down the use of affirmative action in higher education last month, New York colleges have come under pressure to reconsider giving priority to the children of alumni in admissions decisions.
Advocates have described the practice, known as legacy admissions, as “ affirmative action for the white and wealthy “ — giving a boost to students who on average come from higher income families with experience navigating the college application process.
More than seven in 10 private colleges in New York consider whether applicants are related to alumni, as do more than a third of public schools, according to data compiled by Education Reform Now.
“The United States has long claimed to have an ideology of meritocracy,” said Jacquelyn Martell, executive director of the advocacy group’s New York chapter, “that you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps. That is not true.
“In New York State, in particular, we’ve seen gross amounts of economic disparities, housing disparities, and disparities in access to quality education.”
Proponents of legacy admissions defend it as a tool to build multigenerational bonds between families and their schools, including to solicit donations and even fund scholarships that can help diversify campuses.
But its future was put to the test last year when state lawmakers proposed legislation to end the practice statewide. The bill was met with backlash from the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, who at the time called it an “unreasonable intrusion” that will fail to achieve its own aims.
The statewide association has since changed its tune on the policy.
“While legacy admission has been an important recruitment tool for some New York colleges, we recognize the public’s perception that the practice also has the effect of expanding privilege instead of opportunity,” said Lola Brabham, president of the CICU.
“In light of the Supreme Court decision banning the use of race in the college admissions process, the Independent Sector will not continue its opposition to banning legacy preference in admissions. New York’s independent colleges and universities remain deeply committed to fostering diverse, welcoming campus communities and ensuring higher education is accessible to all.”
Legacy admissions is also facing a federal challenge after a Boston firm charged this month that Harvard University is violating education civil rights law by prioritizing applicants related to alumni. The filing came just days after the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that race cannot be considered in admissions in the 41 states that had yet to outlaw affirmative action, including New York.
A Daily News survey of a dozen New York colleges and universities with the lowest acceptance rates yielded few results. Most did not return requests for comment or directed The News to statements on affirmative action released after the decision. Columbia University and Hamilton College both declined to answer questions about their policies after the Harvard complaint.
At Cornell University, the issue became a flashpoint in 2018 when students, alongside advocates at other universities, organized a petition to demand an end to legacy admissions. A few years later, the Student Assembly renewed their call and close to unanimously passed a resolution against the practice. Neither effort was successful.
Nearly 17% of the Class of 2021 were related to alumni, according to the student newspaper. A spokesperson for the university declined to provide updated figures or comment on their practices, referring The News to a statement released after the Supreme Court ruling.
“When universities are free to admit broadly diverse classes through an individualized and holistic application review process,” said Cornell President Martha Pollack, “they are intentionally creating a student body with the potential to create a spark of insight, to advance knowledge, and to challenge one another and thereby strengthen an argument or call an assumption into question.
“As always, Cornell will follow the law, but within its scope we will remain a welcoming community.”
Roughly 7% of college freshmen at Colgate University were the children or grandchildren of alumni, university data show. More than a third of “legacy” students who applied were admitted, compared to a 12% acceptance rate overall. University officials did not return a request for comment.
Prospective students at New York University can likewise identify themselves as legacies on their applications, but it will not tip the scale. Less than 2% of the freshman class in fall 2021 were the children of alumni..
“While the University is always happy to have the children of alums apply and attend, unlike many peer schools, being the child of an alum is not a factor in our admissions decision-making,” spokesman John Beckman told The News.
At Sarah Lawrence College, students can share where their parents went to school on the common application, but spokeswoman Falguni Smith said they do not use legacy status when making admission decisions.
In light of the Supreme Court decision, the liberal arts college added a new essay prompt that asks applicants to describe how they believe their college goals might be impacted by the end of affirmative action. It’s one of three options applicants can choose from for their response.
“We use a holistic approach to our admissions review, which has always been inclusive and never exclusively race-based,” Smith said.
No changes were made at SUNY colleges leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision, though the school system said it will incorporate federal guidance when released.
“Now that the ruling has been made, SUNY is analyzing all admissions practices,” said Holly Liapis, a spokeswoman for the public university system, though she added that “parent alumni status is a standard common app question.”
Whether the end of affirmative action pushes the state bill to ban legacy preferences over the finish line remains to be seen, but State Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn), one of its co-sponsors, is optimistic.
“Legacy preferences are simply affirmative act for privileged kids,” said Gounardes. “That’s wholly indefensible. It’s always been indefensible, but especially now.”
Colleges that do not comply with the legislation would be forced to pay a penalty equivalent to the cost of tuition and fees for 10% of the school’s full-time student body. That money would go into the coffers of the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, which subsidizes college costs for low-income students.
The Fair College Admissions Act was reintroduced last session by Gounardes and Assemblywoman Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn) to focus solely on legacy admissions. A previous version of the bill would have outlawed binding early decision processes, criticized for disadvantaging students who need to compare financial aid offers from multiple schools.
“This is exactly the right thing to be doing at this moment in time,” Gounardes said.