Elise Amendola / AP

Up until now, most of the legal and political fights over college-admissions policies have centered around the use of race as a factor in admissions at selective colleges. But that may be changing. On Wednesday, student groups at 13 elite colleges announced that they are mobilizing against a different type of affirmative-action program: that which privileges the children of alumni.

About three-quarters of U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 universities give a boost in admissions to the relatives of alumni, according to an analysis by The Century Foundation, where I am a senior fellow. But student groups such as the Cornell First Generation Students Union, Socioeconomic Diversity Advocates at the University Chicago, and First-Gens@Brown have announced that they plan to challenge such policies, which research finds tend to benefit white and wealthy applicants.  

It’s ironic, said Mayra Valadez, a senior and first-generation student at Cornell,  that “at institutions of higher learning, there are people doing research on combating income inequality,” yet admissions officers in those same colleges are providing “affirmative action for the wealthy.”

As a start, student organizations that champion the rights of low-income and minority communities at Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Brown, Columbia, and the University of Chicago plan to gather signatures for petitions to hold non-binding referenda in the spring on whether students think it is fair for their respective institution to give admissions preference to “legacies.”  

If students vote to eliminate legacy preferences on their given campus, the groups plan to build alliances with alumni who oppose legacy preferences on principle. (Students at the other seven institutions involved—Duke, Swarthmore, Emory, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Vanderbilt, and Amherst—plan to pursue referenda later or use other means to draw attention to this issue, such as op-eds.)

At the very least, student organizers say, they want colleges to be transparent about their policies and disclose any written documents outlining how legacy preference is weighed in the admissions process. While universities typically disclose whether they use legacy preferences or not, they tend not to publicize details on how the process actually works—how heavily such preferences are weighted, for example, and how many students benefit each year.

Many college officials defend legacy preferences as a mere tiebreaker among otherwise equally qualified applicants. Brian Clark, who oversees communications at Brown, said in an email: “When it comes to choosing among equally strong candidates, one consideration can be the natural affinity for the University that often emerges among children of alumni from Brown’s undergraduate college. Such a relationship may be one consideration among a great many factors.”

Because Brown does not disclose relevant data, it’s hard to know precisely how big a factor legacy preference is in the Ivy League institution’s admissions decisions. But evidence suggests that legacy is a significant factor at many elite schools. Research from the Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade of 10 highly selective colleges suggests being a legacy provides a boost equivalent to scoring 160 points higher on the SAT (out of 1600 points). And in 2011, research on 30 elite schools from the higher-education expert Michael Hurwitz found that the children of alumni saw a 45 percentage-point increase in their chances of admission compared to otherwise equally qualified candidates who were not legacies, controlling for factors such as SAT scores, athlete status, gender, race, and “many less-quantifiable characteristics.”

At many prestigious colleges, the relatives of alumni abound on campus. A recent Harvard Crimson survey of the class of 2021 found that 29 percent of students had a relative who attended Harvard. This proportion far outnumbered those whose parents lacked a four-year college degree.

Supporters of the new campaign against legacy preferences say they are getting pushback from those who contend that scholarship students should be grateful for the grants they are receiving and not challenge a system that allegedly encourages donations among alumni—donations that make those scholarships possible.  

But Viet Nguyen, a 2017 graduate of Brown University and a leading force behind the anti-legacy preference drive, told me that “we aren’t biting the hand that feeds us.” There is very little evidence that legacy preferences increase donations, he said. Indeed, a 2010 study in a volume I edited called Affirmative Action for the Rich found that the existence of a legacy-preference policy did not meaningfully increase total alumni giving at leading universities. Furthermore, the study found that seven institutions that dropped legacy preferences between 1998 and 2007 did not suffer any serious reductions in alumni giving.

Students are not the only ones beginning to question legacy preferences. In an October speech, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, William Dudley, declared that giving the children of alumni preferential access “is patently unfair, and scrapping such policies would help increase social mobility.” He went on to ask: “Do we really want to encourage what is essentially a ‘donate to admit’ policy at our major universities?”

In this populist moment, when the victorious candidate for president emphasized that the system is “rigged,” it is possible that some colleges will be shamed into ending their legacy-preference policies. Elite colleges are already reeling from the passage of a new federal tax on large endowments at private institutions, and they may decide that now is a prudent time to eliminate a practice that blatantly rewards lineage over merit.

Moreover, the new campaign among first-generation students at elite colleges may have special resonance among the general public. After all, young people such as Valadez and Nguyen, who have overcome considerable odds to become the first in their families to attend college, are now part of an elite club. Their own children one day could benefit from legacy preferences, so they have all the reason in the world to stay quiet on the issue.  

But they and many of their first-generation colleagues simply can’t come to grips with the idea that children lucky enough to have parents who attended elite colleges should then have yet further advantages heaped upon them in the admissions process. “Just because we would benefit from it does not make it fair,” Nguyen said, echoing a sentiment Valadez similarly stressed. Instead, he said, their focus is on a different question: “How do we extend the ladders of opportunity” to other bright students from their communities who have been left behind?”

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