On May 25th, Colorado Governor Jared Polls signed into law a measure that forbids public colleges and universities in that state from considering “familial relationships” as part of the admissions process.  Citing “significant racial and socioeconomic disparities among students who enroll in [Colorado] higher education institutions,” the measure characterizes “Legacy Preferences” as “inequitable” and “discriminatory in nature . . . hurt[ing] students who are undocumented, first-generation, immigrants, or underrepresented minorities.”  Such policies, Governor Polis stressed, mean that accidents of birth could allow an individual to “take the spot of someone more worthy” and were, echoing the sentiments of the measure’s sponsors, inconsistent with the goal of “focusing on merit.”

The arguable inequity of legacy admissions has been a recurring theme in the debate over admissions preferences.  Institutions view legacy “tips” as key elements in building necessary bases of support.  College leaders widely believe that their use generates institutional loyalty and spurs or rewards financial contributions that allow public institutions to make up shortfalls caused by declining tax support, thus reducing the need to raise tuition and fees.  However, an empirical analysis by Chad Coffman, Tara O’Neil, and Brian Starr examined data from a mix of institutions that do, or do not, use legacy preferences, and found that “there is no statistically significant evidence that legacy preferences impact total alumni giving.”

In the absence of a statutory ban, legacy preferences are presumptively legal.  Of course, if there was evidence that an institution had adopted legacy preferences in order to preserve its racial character, the preferences could then be legally vulnerable as a form of racial discrimination.  But in default of this type of showing, the consideration by admissions officers of an applicant’s family ties to the institution would not trigger enhanced judicial scrutiny, but is rather viewed as a “reasonable” institutional prerogatives.

Because legacy preferences create generational continuities in the makeup of student bodies, they have historically tended to benefit whites.  That effect has of course declined over time, since most elite colleges have been consciously pursuing policies that promote racial diversity (including racial preferences) for half a century, and the racial makeup of alumni at most elite universities is now significantly diverse.   However, these same alumni are predominantly elite in their socioeconomic status, so from an economic viewpoint, legacy preferences certainly tend to perpetuate “classist” patterns in higher education.   

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation, applauded the Colorado measure, characterizing legacy admissions as “affirmative action for the rich, which heap additional advantage on the already advantaged.”  Jaschik.  The Council for Advancement and Support of Education, on the other hand, defended their use, declaring in a statement that they forged “intergenerational ties” that can “instill a deep and beneficial commitment to the institution . . . helping it reinforce and fulfill its mission.”

A number of institutions have eliminated legacy admissions in recent years.  The Colorado measure is, however, unique in that it is the first expression of a general state commitment to end such practices.  The debate is accordingly likely to intensify in its wake.

List of Citations

Chad Coffman, Tara O’Neil & Brian Starr, An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Legacy Preferences on Alumni Giving at Top Universities, in Richard D. Kahlenberg, Ed.. Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. 2010: The Century Foundation Press.

Colorado House Bill 21-1173.

Scott Jaschik, Colorado bars public colleges from using legacy admissions, Inside Higher Ed., May 28, 2021, available at https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2021/06/01/colorado-bars-public-colleges-using-legacy-admissions.

Additional Reading

Richard D. Kahlenberg, Ed.  Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. 2010: The Century Foundation Press.