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Bill would ban universities from giving leg up to legacies, ending ‘affirmative action for the rich’

Pedestrians walk through Harvard Yard on the closed Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Monday, April 20, 2020.Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON – In an effort to level the playing field for college applicants, two congressional Democrats introduced legislation on Wednesday that would ban legacy admissions preferences for institutions that participate in federal student aid programs.

About three-quarters of the most prestigious US colleges consider the alumni status of applicants’ parents or other relatives in the admissions process. Known as “legacies,” those applicants are more likely to be accepted. In the Harvard classes of 2014-2019, a third of legacies were admitted, while other applicants faced a 5.9 percent acceptance rate.

The practice has come under fire because it largely favors white and affluent students. In recent years, several high-profile schools, including Amherst College, have stopped legacy admissions, and Colorado last spring enacted a law banning legacy preference in admissions at all of the state’s public colleges and universities.

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Now, for the first time, Congress is trying to end the practice.

The Fair College Admissions for Students Act, sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York, seeks to ban the practice nationwide. The legislation would bar almost all higher education institutions, including those in the Ivy League and other elite colleges such as Stanford University, from giving admissions preferences to students of alumni or donors. The secretary of education could waive the ban each year for certain types of schools, such as historically Black colleges and universities and Tribal colleges, that can prove their policy benefits historically underrepresented students.

“Our legislation helps students of all backgrounds receive equitable and fair consideration during the admissions process and helps us manifest a future in which every student regardless of who they are or where they come from has a fair shot,” Bowman, a first-term progressive congressman and a former middle school principal, said in a statement.

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Bowman said “classist and racist” legacy and donor preferences at universities nationwide were responsible for shutting out qualified applicants who were overlooked due to their lack of connections.

Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Boston and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York are also cosponsors of the legislation, which so far has not drawn Republican support.

It’s unclear what the bill’s chances are in Congress, where most legislation needs Republican votes to pass. In 2003, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts pushed for a bill to require schools to disclose the racial and economic status of legacy admits, but the legislation ultimately didn’t pass.

Admissions offices have said that legacy preferences promote community and school spirit, and motivate alumni to donate. Some colleges argue these donations contribute to financial aid for low-income students, and that ending legacy preference in admissions could negatively affect many students. However, a 2010 study of the top 100 universities in the country, as ranked by US News & World Report, found that legacy preferences didn’t significantly affect alumni giving.

The bill, which faces an uncertain future in a narrowly divided Congress, arrives less than a week after the US Supreme Court announced that it would hear a case challenging the consideration of race in admissions by Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

Viet Nguyen, cofounder of the EdMobilizer coalition, which has pushed to end legacy admissions, said working with Congress was the next step in a grass-roots campaign that included an alumni donation boycott and launching student referendums on the practice.

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“We’re very excited that this is getting the national attention that it deserves,” said Nguyen, a Brown University graduate whose parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. “Even the alumni who benefit from this say, ‘We don’t want this.’ That’s the message we’re trying to send to universities.”

Nguyen said aides for the two lawmakers reached out to his group in December and worked together to draft the legislation. The EdMobilizer coalition also is making the case to students of color at universities with legacy admission policies that they should support ending the practice, as well, even though their future children could benefit from being legacies.

“While I would love to have my child go to Brown, they will be in a much different social class than I was when I was applying to college…and I think they will do just fine without legacy preferences to get into these institutions,” Nguyen said, calling the policies “tools of white supremacy.”

“We cannot simply repurpose these tools to become equitable,” he said. “I think the right way forward is to dismantle them.”

Amherst College announced in October that it will no longer give preference to children of alumni in its competitive admissions process. Previously, children of alumni made up 11 percent of each class. Amherst was one of the schools targeted by Nguyen’s campaign.

Johns Hopkins University started moving away from legacy admissions practices in 2009, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology do not consider legacy status in their admissions processes.

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Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, said universities spend time looking for ways to fight societal inequality, but those that practice legacy preferences continue to give advantages to students who are already privileged.

“Legacy preferences are very, very difficult to defend because they are essentially affirmative action for the rich,” Kahlenberg said.

Merkley, who was the first in his family to attend college, said that while children of alumni and donors may be qualified to get into a school, families who have experience with college admissions and the money to pay for standardized test preparation aren’t the ones who need more help in the admissions process.

“Selecting applicants to universities based off of family names, connections, or the size of their bank accounts creates an unlevel playing field for students without those built-in advantages, especially impacting minority and first generation students,” he said in a statement.

Jim Puzzanghera of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the bill marks the first time Congress has proposed tackling legacy admissions. It is the first time Congress has proposed ending the practice.


Haley Fuller can be reached at haley.fuller@globe.com.