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Wesleyan University ends legacy admissions

The campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.BEA OYSTER/NYT

Wesleyan University said Wednesday it is ending the practice of favoring children of alumni in admissions, just weeks after the Supreme Court struck down race-based affirmative action in higher education.

The court’s decision has reignited the contentious debate over who is granted admission to the country’s top schools. Now that students who have endured racial discrimination can no longer receive an advantage when applying to college, civil rights advocates are calling on schools to stop preferring candidates based on where their parents graduated, a practice that largely benefits white and wealthy students.

Wesleyan President Michael Roth said that an applicant’s connections to alumni “indicates little about that applicant’s ability to succeed at the university,” and that legacy status has “played a negligible role in our admissions process for many years.” Still, the decision by the elite liberal arts college is a symbolic one that sends the message to prospective students that the university seeks students from all backgrounds.

Moving forward, all family members of Wesleyan alumni will be admitted on their own merit, Roth said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. The decision does not include children of donors, but Roth said that only children of donors who are academically qualified will be granted admission.

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The Middletown, Conn., college, like most highly selective schools, relies on a holistic admissions model that takes numerous factors into account, including non-academic achievements, letters of recommendation, and life circumstances.

Roth said his inbox was flooded with responses to the announcement, mostly positive. He said he’s optimistic that donations to the school will increase over the next several years, similar to what Johns Hopkins University saw in the years following its decision to end legacy preferences in 2014.

“Alumni have been extremely supportive and very proud of the university, especially given the recent Supreme Court decision,” Roth said in an interview. “There are people who give with an expectation that their daughter or son will be helped [in the admissions process], but I think most people give because they believe in the value of the school. And if schools do the right thing, we have a better chance of restoring some of the trust and confidence [in higher education] we’ve lost from the public here in the United States.”

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Roth added that he values families who send generations to Wesleyan, but it’s important that those students are admitted on their own merit, and can do the work.

In addition to Johns Hopkins, Amherst College ended legacy preferences in 2021 and expanded financial aid for low- and middle-income households. Other Massachusetts colleges that told the Globe they do not consider legacy as a factor in admissions include MIT, Boston University, Emerson College, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

A spokesperson for Tufts University confirmed Wednesday that the school expects to review its use of legacy preferences following an internal study; some of its graduate schools, including the medical school, have already ended the practice.

Rob Bielby, managing director at the higher education practice of consulting firm Huron, said he believes it will “take another intervention from the government to fully terminate” legacy preferences at highly selective colleges. Most colleges across the country, he added, are currently struggling to maintain enrollments amid declining populations of college-aged students and more people questioning the value of a college degree.

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Earlier this month, a Boston legal activist group filed a federal complaint calling for an investigation into Harvard University’s legacy admissions practices, as well as those that benefit the children of donors. That group, Lawyers for Civil Rights, applauded Wesleyan’s decision and urged other colleges to follow suit.

“This decision is a step in the right direction toward leveling the playing field for applicants of color by breaking down unfair barriers to higher education,” Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

Harvard declined to comment on calls for it to end legacy admissions.

Roth, the Wesleyan president, said that ending legacy preferences is just one step the college is taking to maintain a diverse study body following the Supreme Court decision. The college, which enrolls 3,253 total students, is also “making a push to get into high schools in rural America,” to reach students who might not have considered an education at a private college in New England. He told the Globe earlier this month that it is also important for elite colleges to spread the word about generous institutional financial aid policies for low-income students.

“They may not have considered us because of price and in fact, if they have no resources, it’s really [close to] free to come to us and cheaper than going to the local state school,” Roth said.

Wesleyan is also working with nonprofit and community organizations to reach minority and low-income students, including a partnership with National Educational Equity Lab, which offers online and hybrid college courses in high schools with large populations of impoverished students. Roth taught one of these courses and said it’s a great way for students to realize they can handle the workload at a school like Wesleyan.

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Also Wednesday, Dartmouth College launched its Institute for Black Intellectual and Cultural Life, which will offer academic programs and community events, and help the Ivy League school recruit and retain Black faculty, students, and staff, a spokesperson said.

“The institute will provide an important interdisciplinary foundation for the entire community on race and Black culture that will be a model for the Ivy League,” Dartmouth Provost David Kotz said in a statement.


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.