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With affirmative action over, legacy college admissions should go too, advocates say

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Legacy is up for debate in the college admissions process. Should prospective college students get a leg up if their family members are alumni of the college where they're applying? More and more voices say no, including conservative justices on the Supreme Court, President Biden and a group of legal activists representing Black and Latinx communities. This all comes in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to remove racial preference from the college admissions process. And NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been looking into all of this. Welcome, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hi, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Hey. So earlier this week, we saw a new legal challenge to Harvard's use of legacy in the admissions process, right? Who is behind that complaint?

NADWORNY: That's right. Yeah. On Monday, a legal nonprofit in Boston called the Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a civil rights complaint with the Education Department against Harvard, arguing that the school's admissions process of using legacy gives an unfair advantage to family members of mostly white alumni and that discriminates against students of color.

ESTRIN: How common is it to consider legacy in college admissions? Is it just Harvard or just the Ivy League universities?

NADWORNY: It's definitely not just Harvard. About 40% of private colleges use this practice, far fewer for public universities. And it was originally started in the 1920s as a way to preserve spots at these elite institutions for the children of the wealthy, white Protestants who had attended in the past. Some schools share their numbers on this practice, but many more do not. And the recent Supreme Court case against Harvard offered a rare behind-the-scenes look at Harvard's admissions data.

ESTRIN: Yeah. So what did that data tell us?

NADWORNY: Well, I asked this of Peter Arcidiacono. He's an economist at Duke University. He was a witness for the plaintiffs in that Harvard case. And that job gave him a lot of time with Harvard's data.

PETER ARCIDIACONO: You know, it was really enlightening just to see how the whole admissions process works in ways that fundamentally favor those from more wealthy backgrounds.

NADWORNY: So in an average Harvard class, about 15% have a family connection. And the power of legacy at a place like Harvard has only grown over time. So in 1991, children of alumni had about a 33% admit rate. It's about the same admit rate for legacies today, he says, even though for everyone else, it's gotten a lot harder to get into Harvard. Here's how Arcidiacono explains it.

ARCIDIACONO: Back then, legacies might have been twice as likely to be admitted as non-legacies. Now it's way, way bigger than that. It's, like, over five times as likely.

NADWORNY: And it's worth noting here that according to Arcidiacono, athletic recruiting actually benefits white, more wealthy students even more than legacy or affirmative action at Harvard.

ESTRIN: That's fascinating to just, you know, pull the curtain back on this secretive process at Harvard. But the push to get rid of legacy preference is not new. Right? There are schools that have already done away with it.

NADWORNY: Yes. And many schools, including Texas A&M and the University of Georgia, actually stopped using legacy preferences around the same time they stopped using race in admissions. So there's this history of these two things being related. In 2021, Colorado passed a state law banning legacy at all public colleges and universities.

ESTRIN: What is the argument for using legacy preference?

NADWORNY: Well, schools often say they're a family, so they're keeping brand loyalty. There's this idea that families give more money, although there is some research that says that that isn't true. And for colleges, admitting is just the first step. Students actually have to enroll and say yes. And so the thinking is that legacy applicants are more likely to accept because they have a connection to the college and because they tend not to need financial aid to do so. And I'll just say this one last thing. Last year Connecticut lawmakers held a hearing on legacy. And Yale University, which has about 14% legacy students - they submitted written testimony that essentially said, hey; we're a private college, and we should be able to do what's best for shaping our own class.

ESTRIN: NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thanks.

NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.