News from Washington - September 2023

Administration September 2023 PREMIUM
The end of affirmative action prompts focus on legacy admissions at selective colleges. Proposed legislation seeks to eliminate such preferences, paralleling calls for equitable education funding.

It’s September, when school quality and admissions to colleges and other select institutions are on the mind.

As College Affirmative Action Programs End, Attention Turns to Legacy Admissions

This summer, the task of the U.S.’s most selective colleges - choosing their new freshman classes from tens of thousands of eligible applicants - got harder. In June, in a highly expected ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional to choose students based on their race or ethnic group identity, as had been done for over four decades. The focus of admissions justice activists turned almost immediately to challenging highly selective colleges’ practice of giving the children of their school’s alumni and/or large donors expedited admission. According to the Century Foundation, “legacy admissions can take up between 10 and 25 percent of available slots at over 100 top universities. Some estimates indicate that applying as a legacy student can double to quadruple one’s chances of getting into a highly selective university”. Education reform activists across the spectrum are demanding that if affirmative action preferences for ethnic minorities have to go, so should preferential admission for legacy applicants.

“We are challenging state and college leaders to eliminate structurally racist and systemically inequitable admission policies, such as legacy preference and binding early decision, which make college admissions less fair and erode public trust in higher education,” Jessica Giles, Executive Director of Democrats for Educational Reform in DC, told Hispanic Outlook in a long interview on August 19. While her national organization adamantly opposes the ending of affirmative action, they are among a number of groups across the political spectrum that support the ending of legacy admissions. Early in 2023, the DFER lobbied members of Congress to re-introduce the “Fair College Admissions for Students Act” (S3559). It was introduced in the Senate by Jeff Merkley (D-OR). An identical bill (HR6559) was introduced in the House by Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). The Act would “prohibit an institution of higher education that participates in federal student-aid programs from giving preferential treatment in the admissions process to applicants based on their relationships to donors or alumni of the IHE.” The bills are expected to be reviewed this fall by the Senate HELP Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee with strong endorsements from many educational activist organizations including Education Reform Now, the Education Trust, the National Education Association (NEA), the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS), The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU).

“A better way to ensure that under-represented students are considered for admission in elite schools equally with all others is to ensure that secondary education funding, curriculum and programs provide equity for all students,” Giles said. Among the projects DFER is involved in is advocating for new brain science discoveries to aid literacy and math proficiencies in secondary schools. DFER also supports national and local partnership projects to expand the number of college admissions overall through dual secondary school/college degree programs.   

Harvard and Georgetown University Stakeholders Demand End to Legacy Admissions

Ending legacy admissions is one issue on which both democrats and republicans can agree. Polls have found a good majority of Americans believe the practice is unfair, especially when not only alumni’s kids are given privileged access to admissions, but also children of faculty, donors, and apparently, some athletes as well. Harvard University – the focus of racist affirmative action practices when it was found that American Asian applicants were assigned negative points for certain personality traits - was also the focus of unfair legacy processes. In this case, investigators found that “at Harvard, between 2014-19, some 43 percent of white students fell into one or more of four legacy categories. Nearly three quarters of them would have been rejected for admission if subjected to the same standards as other white applicants,” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Bill Galson recently. Over 500 students and faculty at Georgetown University in Washington DC submitted a petition to the university administration in August to “demand the abolition of legacy admissions at Georgetown. 

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