Democratic lawmakers propose ban on legacy admissions to colleges

WASHINGTON — As the Supreme Court prepares to hear challenges to affirmative action, two progressive lawmakers are moving to end legacy admissions to prestigious colleges and universities, a practice that largely benefits white students.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., are introducing legislation Wednesday that would ban institutions that participate in federal student aid programs from admitting students based on family ties.

It is the first time Congress has taken up the issue; last year, Colorado banned public schools from giving preference to legacy students. Thousands of schools — many of them private — benefit from federal funds, including schools that give preference to legacy admissions, according to the Education Department.

“Selecting applicants to universities based off of family names, connections, or the size of their bank accounts creates an unlevel playing field for students without those built-in advantages, especially impacting minority and first-generation students,” Merkley said in an emailed statement.

Legacy admissions can take up to a quarter of available slots at top universities, according to the advocacy group Education Reform Now. At Harvard Universitywhich receives millions of dollars in grants from the federal government, around 70 percent of legacy admissions are white, according to a 2019 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

More than half of the country’s top schools do not take legacy status into consideration. But many highly competitive schools, like Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Stanford, still do, according to U.S. News & World Report. Stanford said in 2020 that 16.2 percent of its class of 2023 are children of Stanford graduates.

John Hopkins University said diverse admissions increased sharply after it moved to end the practice in 2020, with a drop of nearly 10 percent in admissions of students with legacy ties. The school’s president, Ronald J. Daniels, wrote at the time that the decision was necessary to fulfill the “democratic promise to be ladders of mobility for all.”

Legacy preference in college admissions dates to the 1920s, when the U.S. took in an influx of immigrants. Bowman said in a statement that the practice “has antisemitic and anti-immigrant roots” and that it “creates another systemic barrier to accessing higher education.”

“This is a practice rooted in hate and exclusion, while affirmative action is rooted in righting historical wrongs,” he added.

The measure, the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, would also allow the education secretary to waive the legacy preference ban for institutions like historically Black colleges, which admit high percentages of underrepresented students.