Merkley, Bowman Introduce Bill to End Legacy Admission Preferences at Colleges and Universities

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY-16) today introduced the Fair College Admissions for Students Act to stop universities across the country from giving preferential treatment to children of alumni and donors and ensure equity in the admissions process.

Merkley and Bowman’s legislation follows the news last week that the Supreme Court will consider a new challenge to affirmative action in higher education admissions. It marks the first time that legislation has been filed in Congress to challenge the practice of giving admissions preferences to children of alumni and donors. Legacy admissions overwhelmingly benefit wealthy and well-connected students—who are predominantly white—at a time when access to higher education for Black and Latino and Latina students is under attack.

“Getting into college can be really tough for people without lots of money, whose parents have never been through the process before, who can’t pay for test prep or advisers to help them craft the perfect essay,” said Merkley, who was himself the first in his family to attend college. “Children of donors and alumni may be excellent students and well-qualified, but the last people who need extra help in the complicated and competitive college admissions process are those who start with the advantages of family education and money. 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. The Fair College Admissions for Students Act, which Representative Bowman and I are introducing today, will remove this discriminatory barrier and ensure that money and connections will no longer give an unfair leg up for access to higher education.”

“All students deserve an equitable opportunity to gain admission to institutions of higher education, but students whose parents didn’t attend or donate to a university are often overlooked in the admissions process due to the historically classist and racist legacy and donor admissions practices at many schools across the country,” said Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Ed.D. (NY-16). “To build a future in which the unlimited potential of our communities are untapped, historical policy harm is addressed, and opportunities for economic, educational, and social advancement are within reach, we have to ensure our policies reflect equity and inclusion — including at our institutions of higher education. The legacy admissions practice which disproportionately benefits rich, white, and connected students, and has antisemitic and anti-immigrant roots, creates another systemic barrier to accessing higher education for low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students. Senator Merkley and I say exclusionary practices must end and Congress must prohibit these unfair and inequitable practices. Our legislation helps students of all backgrounds receive equitable and fair consideration during the admissions process and helps us manifest a future in which every student regardless of who they are or where they come from has a fair shot.”

Legacy admissions can take up between 10 and 25 percent of available slots at top universities. Some estimates indicate that applying as a legacy student can double to quadruple one’s chances of getting into a highly selective university. In using legacy and donor status in admissions decisions, institutions give preference to students whose families attended or donated to the university, reducing the opportunities for the descendants of enslaved African Americans who built and maintained many of these institutions and other underrepresented students. 

“Ending the practice of legacy admissions is a critical step to address long standing inequities and creates more access for underrepresented students in higher education,” said Carlos Moreno, Senior Campaign Strategist, ACLU. “The Fair College Admissions for Students Act would help address our country’s long history of race discrimination and inequities in education. We thank Senator Merkley and Representative Bowman for introducing this bill, and urge Congress to swiftly move the act to a vote.”

“Education Reform Now is proud to have worked with Sen. Merkley and Rep. Bowman in introducing national legislation directed at ending the legacy preference in college admissions. The legacy preference undermines diversity, fails to reward true achievement, and is profoundly un-American. The way to make admissions fairer and more accessible isn’t to perpetuate privilege among a few, but to stop inequitable admissions policies entirely,” said Michael Dannenberg, Vice President of Higher Education and Strategic Initiatives, Education Reform Now. “If institutions of higher education won’t act on their own, then Congress, states, municipalities, and corporate and philanthropic donors should impose financial repercussions on wealthy colleges that willfully choose to perpetuate inequity.”

“EdMobilizer is proud to support the Fair College Admissions for Students Act. Legacy preferences is an archaic practice that gives unfair and unearned advantages to already privileged applicants,” said Viet Andy Nguyen, Executive Director, EdMobilizer. “It is time for institutions to end legacy preferences now.”

The Fair College Admissions for Students Act, introduced by Rep. Bowman and Sen. Merkley, would:

  • Amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to prohibit institutions of higher education participating in Federal student aid programs from giving admissions preference to students with legacy or donor status.
  • Grant the U.S. Secretary of Education the ability to waive the legacy preference prohibition for an award year for Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal College or Universities (TCUs), and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs). To receive this waiver, the institution must demonstrate that its use of legacy preference is in the best interest of historically underrepresented students.

The Fair College Admissions for Students Act is endorsed by 1000 Women Strong, Alliance for Quality Education, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS), Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Color of Change, EdMobilizer, Education Reform Now, Education Trust, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), National Action Network (NAN), New America, The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), UnidosUS, and United We Dream.

The legislation is cosponsored in the Senate by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and in the House by Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY-14), Cori Bush (D-MO-01), Jesús G. “Chuy” García (D-IL-04), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA-07), and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-07).