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A private liberal arts college in Connecticut is ending legacy admissions

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

This week, Wesleyan University announced it will end its practice of legacy admissions, which gives preference to children of alumni. Legacy students are more likely to be white and wealthy. This comes in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to ban race-conscious college admissions. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been following all this. Hey, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hello.

FLORIDO: What more can you tell us about Wesleyan's announcement?

NADWORNY: So starting in the fall, there will no longer be a bump in the selection process for applicants whose family members went to Wesleyan, which is a private liberal arts college in Connecticut. I talked with Michael Roth about this - he's Wesleyan's president - and he talked about how legacy was not in line with their diversity efforts.

MICHAEL ROTH: I want to talk about the fact that we're recruiting students from rural America, that we're recruiting veterans, that we're - we've created an African scholars program. But if we were doing those things and retained this unearned advantage through legacy, I feared that we would never really get to talk about those other things.

NADWORNY: He says legacy only played a negligible role in the college admissions process there. But students with family connections make up about 5% of incoming classes. Yet at other elite institutions, legacy plays a much bigger role in helping students gain admissions. Take Yale University, which is just a 30-minute drive down the road. Their latest freshman class is 12% legacy.

FLORIDO: Well, let's talk about the timing of this, Elissa. Is this happening in direct response to the Supreme Court's affirmative action decision?

NADWORNY: Yeah. It is. Roth told me it was something that he'd been thinking about doing for several years, but then the Supreme Court issued their decision. Plus, there was this growing pressure on selective colleges to end the practice. So Roth and the college decided to get rid of it. And the big worry that I keep hearing from college presidents and admissions leaders is that students who come from underrepresented backgrounds - Black students, Native students - they just won't apply to selective schools because they're nervous about how the court's decision is going to impact their ability to get in, and so colleges, including Wesleyan, are trying to signal to prospective students they want diversity.

FLORIDO: Well, Wesleyan is not the first college to do this. How has dropping legacy admissions affected other schools?

NADWORNY: So during the pandemic, Amherst College, a small elite school in Massachusetts, also stopped using legacy. It came after two years of planning. Here's Matt McGann, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst, offering a rare behind-the-scenes look at the process.

MATT MCGANN: In the past, admissions officers would see a flag on the applicant's cover page, indicating that a student was a legacy and that that student should be provided additional consideration. We removed that flag after this policy change. So instead, these students now go through the - our process just like every other applicant.

NADWORNY: Now, before the change, the freshman class there had 11% legacy, and after, it dropped to 6%. So students with the family history at the university still got in after the change, but they did so on their own merits. The college is still waiting to see how this change has impacted alumni giving.

FLORIDO: So let's talk about that because alumni giving - alumni donations are a big deal.

NADWORNY: Right.

FLORIDO: And that really is sort of the main reason colleges keep their legacy admissions programs.

NADWORNY: Money is certainly a big reason. I mean, most college presidents - their main job is to raise it. And there has been some research that shows that alumni give more money around the time their children are applying to college. Of course, multi-generation attendance can establish a strong familial connection to a place, which could lead to donating more.

FLORIDO: So is Wesleyan, with its decision, worried about a drop in alumni giving?

NADWORNY: Well, I asked Michael Roth, the president, that question.

ROTH: Is it harder to ask someone for support if you've rejected their daughter or granddaughter? You betcha.

NADWORNY: He says - he knows that for some alums, legacy is an important issue, but he also thinks alumni will see the value in this change as a way to level the playing field.

ROTH: I'm betting on the idea, and I wouldn't have made this decision if I thought it would seriously hurt the university's economic foundation.

FLORIDO: That was Wesleyan's president Michael Roth. He spoke with NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who covers colleges and universities. Thanks, Elissa.

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.