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With affirmative action gone, legacy admissions must be dismantled

Tyler Jackman

Managing Editor

Affirmative action is not dead. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard declared race-based admissions unconstitutional and jettisoned the controversial practice. To some, the decision represents an unraveling of racial equity in higher education. Others cheer it as the birth of a true merit-based admissions process. These black-and-white arguments, however, fail to recognize that the decision did not kill affirmative action. As the practice of legacy admissions remains untouched while race-based admissions end, the Supreme Court has reshaped affirmative action into a tool of aristocracy. It is still in practice; but only for the rich.

Legacy admissions, the process in which colleges give special preferences in admissions to applicants with alumni relatives, is both widely unpopular and widely still in use. Frankly, neither of these are a surprise. The very fact that institutions of higher education are able to utilize this practice undermines any argument that purely merit-based admissions exist. It serves nobody except the elitist institutions that seek to create their dream student body; a body of students that can provide them high-dollar donations post-graduation. Students without this capital are dispensable to them.

Legacy Admissions - Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko (Pexels) (1).jpg

By giving preferential treatment to those connected to the upper class, colleges are also able to guarantee their students pay absurd rates of tuition fees. In a previous analysis for The Anchor, I evaluated the intersectionalities between student debt, career success and racial inequity. It is clear that greater tuition rates bring greater debt, and greater debt brings greater woes for those not part of the elite class. These are not concerns for these institutions. Colleges that prefer legacy admissions, making up over half of the top 250 institutions and three-quarters of the top 100 institutions, see students as living wallets. Rich students with alumni relatives bring money, and money lets these schools continue to grow their coffers while discriminating against the lower and middle class.

The origins of legacy admissions began in the United States in the 1920s as a way to ensure Jewish, nonwhite and immigrant students were kept at bay and to ensure white and Christian student bodies. Now that race-based admissions have ended, this legacy is certain to return full circle until it is dismantled. Harvard’s class of 2019, for example, consisted of 70% white legacy admission-connected students. The amount of legacy students from underrepresented races accepted make up around 6%. Even if one argues that the admissions offices in universities like Harvard are not racist, which very well may be true, data suggests that their reliance on legacy admissions disproportionately harms admission chances for students of color.

Colleges now find themselves at a crossroads as pressure builds to end the harmful legacy admission practice. Even those who argued that race-based admissions fostered unfairness in admissions processes have an opportunity to continue fighting for equitable admissions. That is, unless their true allegiances lie in the almighty dollar like the elitist institutions they railed against. Colleges that utilize these practices, however, are not the disease. They are a symptom of the intertwined nature of college and capital; if an elite school can scavenge money from its students, then equitable education is an afterthought. Only when the need for colleges to drain students dry of money is abolished can diverse and equitable higher education be made a true reality. In the meantime, though, the necessary next step is clear. The perverse practice of considering legacy admissions must be ripped out root and stem.


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