Universities facing pressure to abandon giving preference to legacy admissions

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to bar universities from considering race when selecting students. This is likely to prompt schools to consider ending other practices that favor white, wealthier students at the expense of historically disadvantaged ones.

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Alana Nii (on left) with fellow first-year University of Chicago students Pavlik Braverman and Sofia Markarian near the entrance to the Hyde Park campus. Nii’s father attended U. of C. but she’s opposed to allowing alumni status factor into admissions decisions.

Alana Nii (from left) chats with fellow first-year University of Chicago students Pavlik Braverman and Sofia Markarian near the entrance to the Hyde Park campus. Nii’s father attended U. of C. but she said she opposes allowing alumni status to factor into admissions decisions.

Lisa Philip/WBEZ

Every fall, fewer than 1 in 10 applicants to the University of Chicago walk beneath a flock of gargoyles adorning a fortresslike stone gate onto the main quad as admitted students.

Years ago, Alana Nii’s father was one of them.

“He had a great time,” said Nii, who grew up in Virginia. “And he really believes in UChicago as an institution.”

So Nii applied too. When she did, she got to check a box indicating she was a family member of an alumnus and warranted special consideration.

It’s a box she says shouldn’t exist. But it does, on applications to hundreds of selective universities across the country. Locally, both the University of Chicago and Northwestern have held on to the practice, called legacy admissions — despite concerns about its impact on students from historically marginalized communities.

But the pressure on these schools to reconsider the practice is growing.

More than 100 selective institutions have ended their legacy admissions policies in recent years. And in June, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on race-conscious admissions. The justices are expected to bar universities from considering race when selecting students. This is likely to prompt schools to consider ending other practices that favor white, wealthier students at the expense of historically disadvantaged ones.

“We’re not allowed to do that … but we’ll still consider where your mommy or daddy went to college? We’ll still give this birthright advantage to people?” asked James Murphy, an advocate of more equitable admissions policies with the nonprofit Education Reform Now. “That just seems to me an impossible position for any ethical institution to hold.”

Top officials at both Northwestern and U. of C. declined interview requests. Leaders at other selective universities have defended legacy admissions as a way to maintain and build community among graduates. But critics say giving preference to applicants who are related to alumni unfairly restricts access to highly selective universities that educate many of society’s most influential decision makers.

“The main argument I’ve heard for legacies is … kids who are legacies … are more suited for the university from just a values standpoint, or care more about the university … or are willing to put in more work,” said Nii, now a first-year student at U. of C. “But if that’s true, then that should show through your application, and the end result should be the same.”

Data reported by Northwestern and U. of C. shows the schools give as much consideration to legacy status as they do to race. Neither is weighed as heavily as academics or extracurricular activities.

“It doesn’t come down to, ‘Are people who aren’t qualified getting in because of legacy?’ ” Murphy said. “It’s … ‘Is legacy a good way to break a tie? Is legacy a good way to decide between two incredibly qualified, super talented students?’ ”

Some university leaders might answer yes out of a desire to keep alumni close.

“There’s a reasonable desire to say, ‘Let’s create generations of students and build families that are connected to the university,’ ” said Alex Seeskin, director of the To&Through Project, an education research group at U. of C. “And I think there’s an assumption that those types of connections yield or lead to donations.”

University presidents and trustees may also fear backlash from alumni who want to build their family’s connection to their alma mater — and who want their children to receive special consideration.

“They’re going to be taking phone calls,” Murphy said. “And at board meetings, people are going to be yelling at them about how you’ve ruined it for their children.”

Maintaining the status quo

Historians say legacy admissions policies began about 100 years ago. Jewish and immigrant students had started applying in larger numbers to Ivy League colleges. Leaders at those institutions wanted to keep their student bodies white and wealthy. Giving preference to applicants who were related to alumni did just that.

Some say it still does.

“By design, it’s meant to keep … students at an institution static,” Seeskin said. “Because it’s trying to draw explicit connections between generations of students that go back to times when there were more explicit policies, about … who could and couldn’t access selective colleges.

Universities are not required to report the number or demographics of legacy students they admit. (And U. of C. and Northwestern don’t.) But data made public in a lawsuit against Harvard revealed the disparities the policy can perpetuate. Harvard’s most academically accomplished legacy applicants were more than twice as likely to get in than equally accomplished peers from low-income families.

“If we care about closing the racial wealth gap, then we have to look at who is admitted to our most selective higher education institutions,” Seeskin said. “Because getting access to those institutions … is the clearest pathway we have in our society to becoming wealthy.”

In recent years U. of C. and Northwestern have publicized efforts to make their universities more inclusive and equitable, including the addition and expansion of need-based scholarship programs. But both schools have seen their share of Black students grow only minimally, according to federal data, to about 6%.

Seeskin doesn’t blame legacy admissions entirely. There are other preferences that also advantage white and wealthy students, including for athletes and for children of faculty. But, he said, it certainly doesn’t help. He questions why U. of C. and Northwestern have held on to the policy while other selective universities have dropped it. Seeskin points to their endowments, which both exceed $10 billion, and he says, could likely withstand a dip in alumni contributions.

“The question … for both of these presidents is, ‘Do you want to lead or do you want to follow?’ ” he said.

If they truly want to make equity and inclusion a priority, Seeskin said, ending legacy admissions should be their first step.

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus.

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