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This bipartisan Senate duo wants to end legacy college admissions

Georgetown University in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., on Dec. 3, 2021.
Daniel Slim
/
AFP via Getty Images
Georgetown University in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., on Dec. 3, 2021.

Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) have introduced new legislation that aims to ban the practice of considering applicants' relationship to school alumni and donors in college admissions.

The Merit-Based Educational Reforms and Institutional Transparency Act, or MERIT Act, would prohibit accredited higher education institutions from granting preferential treatment in admissions processes based on an applicant's relationship to alumni or donors. The amendment to the Higher Education Act would be paired with a required study to improve data collection on the influence of legacy and donor relationships in admissions decisions.

How many colleges consider legacy status in admissions decisions?

Roughly half of higher education institutions offered some form of legacy preference to applicants in 2020, according to a report by the advocacy group Education Reform Now.

Among the 64 highly-selective institutions — who admit fewer than one quarter of applicants and legacy status could make candidates three times more likely to be admitted — 80% weighed legacy status.

While the direct impact of the policy is limited — fewer than four-in-10 Americans have a bachelor's or higher degree and a tiny number attend the most selective institutions — legacy admissions critics say it is important to consider the ways admissions decisions shape American society more broadly.

Richard Reeves, who studied the policy during his time at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said that the highly-selective schools are ultimately in the business of selecting America's elite.

"The question is, then, are they also at risk of reproducing an elite by giving a leg up to the sons and daughters of the existing elite?" Reeves said. "Should meritocracy be driving college admissions? Or is the role of these institutions to help pass the baton on from one generation to the next?"

Admissions processes are in the public eye in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that ended race-conscious admissions

As students across the country complete their college application process this winter, they become the first pool of students to experience a dramatically reformed system.

In June, a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ended race-conscious admission programs at colleges and universities across the country as unconstitutionally discriminatory.

The decision reversed decades of precedent and ended the ability of colleges and universities — public and private — to consider race as one of the factors in selecting which applicants to admit.

The logic of affirmative action, according to admissions offices, was to redress the systemic inequities disproportionately experienced by students of color, particularly Black students, in both the American educational system and society more broadly.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Neal Gorsuch indicated that, in his view, legacy preferences at Harvard — one of the defendants in the case — "undoubtedly benefit white and wealthy applicants the most" because of who has, historically, been admitted to the school.

The Supreme Court's decision helped to inspire student activism on the issue

In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision, a group of students at Georgetown University began to explore ways they could use their influence to make their school's admissions process more equitable.

The school's College Democrats group initiated a petition urging the school to end legacy preference in admissions. The document has now been signed by three dozen student groups and more than 1,000 students, faculty and alumni.

Georgetown did not respond to multiple NPR inquiries and, according to the College Democrats group, has not publicly responded to the petition's demands.

Approximately 10% of Georgetown students are legacy students — including Joe Massaua.

Massaua is a junior in the School of Foreign Service who grew up dreaming of attending Georgetown. He bonded with his dad watching the school's basketball games and visited the campus on trips to Washington, D.C., to see his grandparents.

"I worked my tail off to get here. I grinded," Massaua said. "I always had Georgetown in my mind as being the one school that I really, really wanted to get into."

And, now that he's there, he loves it. He's active on campus and also serves as a local elected official in the D.C. government. But, as campus discussion ramped up around legacy admissions, he began to reflect on his own path to achieving his dream.

"It made me rethink my college application process," Massaua said, "and wonder that for all the work that I did to get into Georgetown, was it just the tiny little box that I checked?"

Massaua told me that he hopes that his future kids choose to attend Georgetown one day — but that they shouldn't have a leg up over other, equally qualified applicants. So, he decided to sign the petition.

"It was difficult because it's not something that I — as a legacy student — want to think about, Massaua said. "But the whole process is flawed."

"I think that this is one step that could be reformed to be fairer for all college applicants," Massaua said.

A growing, bipartisan movement

Massaua and his peers at Georgetown have powerful allies across town at the U.S. Capitol — including Senators Tim Kaine and Todd Young.

"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," Kaine said in an interview.

"If the attack on affirmative action on the grounds of race is, 'you gotta put merit first,'" Kaine said, "well, then let's put merit first."

Kaine said that he and Young are both heartened by the number of universities who have begun to end the practice.

Since the Supreme Court's affirmative action decision this summer, several prominent universities — including Wesleyan and Carnegie Mellon — have announced the end to legacy admissions preference.

And — while it remains to be seen whether the MERIT Act will eventually be brought up for a vote — the notion is attracting support from all corners of Congress.

In June, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called legacy admissions "affirmative action for the privileged." Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), then a presidential hopeful, said on Fox News that month, that the question is, in order to create a culture where education is the goal "for every single part of our community," schools should end "preferential treatment for legacy kids."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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

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