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Balancing the scales, CT lawmakers look to ban legacy admissions

Wesleyan University eliminated its use of legacy preference in its admissions process in the summer of 2023
Olivia Bartlett Drake
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Wesleyan University eliminated its use of legacy preference in its admissions process in the summer of 2023.

As the new year sinks in, students in Connecticut settle into the remainder of their senior year of high school — anxiously awaiting one, two or 10 email updates that could swing open the doors to college.

This admissions cycle has looked markedly different than years past: last summer’s Supreme Court decision to repeal affirmative action practices in schools across the country shook colleges and college hopefuls alike. Education advocates have said the decision stripped away only one kind of student preference in the admissions process, leaving the playing field unbalanced and reinstating a barrier for groups like first-generation, low-income students of color who don’t have the same resources as some of their peers.

Both lawmakers and education advocates say the loss of affirmative action has renewed interest in banning another “preference” long debated in admissions: that of the legacy.

Legacy applicants are those students who have a relative — often a parent, sometimes siblings or extended family are considered — who attended the same school the student is applying to. Depending on the college, those applicants may be given a “leg up” in admissions. The process is criticized for giving an additional advantage to those coming from a background of highly educated family members.

“We know that legacy applicants are more likely to be white and wealthy,” said Nikki Golos, the deputy director of Education Reform Now’s Connecticut chapter. “We also know that they're about three times as likely to be admitted as their non-legacy peers.”

Education Reform Now released a report in mid-January recommending the state ban legacy admissions in Connecticut, especially in the face of changes to race-conscious admissions.

“The timing does feel ripe for a change in Connecticut, and honestly, nationally, right now,” Golos said. “If we're eliminating one weight that was supposed to be a benefit to students of color, it makes sense to also eliminate this other weight that provides an advantage to white and wealthy kids.”

The state General Assembly previously attempted to take down legacy student preferences in college admissions, not long ago: House Bill 5034 was introduced by the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee in the 2022 session. The legislation made it to the House floor, but its journey was halted — with formidable opponents keeping it from the finish line.

“Private universities really took a position that said, ‘first and foremost, we're private institutions and [the] government shouldn't be telling us how to run our admissions office. Second, legacy is important for us for fundraising,’” said state Senator Derek Slap (D-West Hartford), who served as co-chair of the higher education committee that year — and still is.

Slap isn’t convinced of the connection between legacy admissions and fundraising efforts for a given college. “I think there's been studies that debunked that. And, we know that there are many private schools that care deeply about fundraising, which have voluntarily eliminated legacy admissions,” he said.

A study compiled over the course of a decade in the early 2000s shows that across more than 100 universities in the United States, no significant connection between the implementation of legacy preference in admissions and the amount donated by alumni was found.

Higher education advocates are also confident that donations to colleges will continue to flow, even without legacy admissions.

“I think in many of the more selective schools that we're talking about, their endowments are already so outsized,” said Richard Sugarman, the president of Hartford Promise, an organization that provides scholarships to Hartford high school students.

“It's not like people are going to stop donating because the school is now more fair about its admissions," Sugarman said. "Schools are still going to admit students. Schools are still going to raise lots of money. Endowments are going to continue to grow.”

Sugarman also said he believes that following the loss of affirmative action, schools are changing their own perspectives on how legacy preference does or doesn’t add to the admissions process.

“I do think that there is some momentum around, ‘how can we be, as an institution, more open and fair about students and admissions?’” he said. “I think there is momentum in that regard, and that comes partly from some outside influence or pressure. but I think most of it comes from internal desire, and wanting to be more of that kind of an institution.”

For example, Slap is going to reintroduce the bill in the upcoming legislative session that starts Wednesday, Feb. 7.

“We'll have a public hearing on it, and then we'll see where it goes,” Slap said. He also said he’s prepared to receive criticism from the same corners of the state as two years ago, though he has hope the outcome will look different.

“Sometimes it takes a nudge from the government, and this may be one of those cases. But if you look ahead, let's say, a decade from now, I think it's going to be mostly [banned] because I think people know where the right side of history is on this issue.”

Some institutions aren’t waiting that long. Top schools around the country, both private and public, have done away with the practice of legacy preference in recent years. This includes Amherst College and Johns Hopkins, as well as the University of California school system.

Many colleges in Connecticut have gone ahead on their own to drop legacy admissions. Notably, Wesleyan University, a private college in Middletown, moved to ban the practice in the summer of 2023 after the Supreme Court decision.

In addition, Colorado became the first state to ban legacy admissions at public colleges and universities. On Tuesday, Virginia’s House of Delegates moved to approve a similar ban after it was approved in the state Senate. The governor’s office has signaled that the legislation will be signed, clearing the state’s path to becoming the second in the nation to ban legacy admissions.

Golos from Education Reform Now said she’s optimistic that legacy admissions will begin to fade as a common practice.

“Nationally, we are hopeful. And in Connecticut we're hopeful,” she said. Then, she offered up some neighborly competition.

“Between New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, we feel confident that one of these states is going to ban the practice in private institutions. So in some ways, the race is on.”

Eda Uzunlar is WSHU's Poynter Fellow for Media and Journalism.