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Bipartisan group of lawmakers seeks to end legacy admissions

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to end legacy preferences in college admissions. At highly selective colleges, students who have a direct family tie to the school can be as much as three times more likely to be admitted than equally qualified students who don't. The college admissions process is under new scrutiny after the Supreme Court ended race-based affirmative action in June. Here's NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel.

ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: Joe Massaua is a junior at Georgetown School of Foreign Service here in Washington, D.C., and to hear him tell it, he's living the dream.

JOE MASSAUA: My grandparents lived here in D.C. I've been on campus. I have photos of me from when I was younger there. So I always had Georgetown, like, in my mind as being, you know, the one school that I really, really wanted to get into.

MCDANIEL: Growing up, he bonded with his dad, who he says is also a Georgetown graduate, over university basketball games. And Massaua says he worked his tail off to make sure he had the best odds possible to secure his spot. He even hopes his future kids will one day choose to attend Georgetown, too. But he told me he hopes the legacy admissions preference that may have helped him get in is eventually reformed.

MASSAUA: So on the application, there's a little box that you can check that shows you, you know, whether or not you had a relative who was legacy. So I checked that box, and I submitted my application, and I heard back, and I got in. And you don't think much about it, but now that there's been, you know, this whole movement on campus, it made me rethink my college application process and wonder that, for all the work that I did to get into Georgetown, was it just the tiny little box that I checked?

MCDANIEL: He signed a petition this fall, along with hundreds of other students, staff and alumni, calling on Georgetown to end preferential treatment of legacy applicants. And the petitioners have some powerful allies in that fight - a bipartisan pair of U.S. senators who have proposed legislation that would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to link a school's accreditation to ending the practice. Republican Todd Young of Indiana joined with Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia to introduce the MERIT Act. Here's Kaine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM KAINE: I think families of kids don't like the notion that they start off already behind because maybe they didn't go to the school or somebody else has more money than them.

MCDANIEL: The lawmakers say legacy preference runs counter to the idea of the American dream. Richard Reeves, a scholar who studied this during his time with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, agrees.

RICHARD REEVES: The American ideal that I hope my kids would benefit from when I moved here - it's anti-hereditary at its core, the idea of taking your place, making your place, making your way in the world.

MCDANIEL: Reeves said that while most Americans don't have a four-year degree and far fewer attend the kind of highly selective institutions where legacy preference can offer the biggest boost, these highly selective institutions can still really shape how the country operates, given the number of people they send into government, media and the executive ranks.

REEVES: There's this idea of meritocracy should be driving college admissions, or is the role of these institutions to help kind of pass the baton on from one generation to the next?

MCDANIEL: Georgetown University didn't respond to multiple requests for comment from NPR, but alongside hundreds of other institutions, the school is facing pressure from a growing chorus of lawmakers of all stripes who say it's time for reform - folks like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive New Yorker, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a social conservative who spoke out against the practice during his presidential run. Massaua, the Georgetown legacy student, told me that this issue can be really hard to talk about for folks but that he's grateful that people are talking about it.

MASSAUA: The admissions process is flawed and it's skewed, and I hope for the process to be reformed, and I think that this is one step that it could be reformed to be fairer for all college applicants.

MCDANIEL: And while it's not likely this reform bill will make it through a mostly stalled Congress to Biden's desk for a signature, it's clear that the issue has momentum.

Eric McDaniel, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOODRA$TA SONG, "EARLY MORNING SMOKE SE$H") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.