October 19, 2023

ACS Calls for the End of Legacy Admissions

Across the country, students are spending countless hours filling out college and law school applications in hopes of securing an education that will fuel their careers and provide them and their families with financial security. As schools undertake the challenge that is the admissions process, including early admission in the coming weeks, ACS is calling for the end of legacy preference as a consideration in college and law school admissions. This is one step of many – but it is a necessary step – that colleges and law schools need to take to ensure fairness and equity in student admissions, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court banning affirmative action in higher education admissions.

Legacy preference is the practice of giving preference to applicants who have at least one family member who attended the college or university to which the applicant is applying. It disproportionately favors white, wealthy applicants and disfavors applicants of color and those who are first generation or low income. The advantage bestowed on white, wealthy applicants from their legacy status has shown to be greater than that of affirmative action for applicants of color. With affirmative action now banned, the retained advantage of legacy is even more skewed.

Legacy applicants often have multiple advantages even before legacy is considered. They disproportionately come from wealthy families, attended elite high schools, and have access to supplemental educational resources like tutoring, AP courses, and a host of extracurriculars. They are also less reliant or non-reliant on financial aid, and their families may already donate or be prepared to donate to a college or law school if their student is admitted.

Not only does legacy preference disproportionately favor white applicants, but the practice is also rooted in intentional racism. Following World War I, colleges and universities saw an increase in immigrant applicants and enrollment, particularly of Jewish immigrant students. In response, many schools implemented quotas for how many Jewish applicants could be accepted. When the use of quotas came under criticism, schools found alternative means of achieving the same outcome. One of those was giving preference to legacy applicants.

The Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to ban affirmative action in higher education admissions relied on the premise that “it demeans the dignity and worth of a person to be judged by ancestry instead of by his or her own merit.” Some scholars believe that, following this principle, the use of legacy preference violates the Constitution and federal civil rights laws. They argue the Equal Protection Clause prohibits discrimination based on ancestry or family lineage and that legacy preference violates the Constitution’s prohibition on titles of nobility and similar hereditary privileges. They also point to regulations implementing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibit universities from adopting policies that disproportionately and unjustifiably exclude people of color.

There is a counterargument to ending legacy preference that argues that because diversity has risen in higher education admissions, including at elite schools, more applicants of color stand to benefit from legacy moving forward. However, the number of applicants of color who could benefit in the near future is still drastically outnumbered by white applicants who would continue to benefit. Moreover, with affirmative action in higher education admissions now banned, there is concern that diversity in enrollment will decline, particularly if legacy is retained, meaning fewer applicants of color would benefit from legacy over the long term. In sum, legacy will continue to disproportionately favor white applicants.

At ACS, we are committed to redressing systemic racism in our laws and institutions,

and to pursuing the changes needed to achieve a legal system that promotes racial equality. The dismantling of a system that has helped keep colleges, law schools, and the legal profession overwhelmingly white is a necessary step in this pursuit. I want to reiterate that ending legacy preference is not a silver bullet. Colleges and law schools should be using every tool available to increase the diversity of their student populations. Ending legacy preference is one such tool, and a necessary tool that should be readily implemented.

Read ACS's statement opposing legacy preference in college and law school admissions.