Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy requires, among many other things, rethinking the use of legacy admissions at U.S. colleges and universities. Dr. King famously dreamed of a nation where children would “not be judged by the color of their skin.” His reference to skin color has been misinterpreted in many contexts, most recently in the Supreme Court’s ruling last June to end the use of affirmative action in universities. The Supreme Court, in SFFA v. Harvard, characterizes efforts to maintain racial distinctions as “folly” and contends Brown v. Board of Education vindicated the idea that “education must be available to all on equal terms.”
Their effort to sideline racial minorities provoked civil rights advocates to jump into action on ending legacy preferences in admissions. However, while legacy admissions should end as a matter of fairness, we shouldn’t expect ending legacy admissions to cure the myriad racial inequities that affirmative action tried to remedy.
The call to end legacy admissions in higher education has now become a chorus. Shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling, President Joe Biden called on universities to end the practice, and his Department of Education opened an investigation into Harvard’s legacy preferences. Congress and the state of Massachusetts are weighing legislation to end it, and several states have banned it, including New York and California. A growing list of universities have also voluntarily dropped the practice, including the University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Amherst College, Wesleyan University, and Texas A&M University.
Why do legacy admissions matter so much? Studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research and Education Reform Now show that three-quarters of research universities and nearly all liberal arts colleges use legacy preferences. Being a legacy at many universities raises an applicant’s chances of admission by 20%. Legacy admissions are the largest factor contributing to an overrepresentation of high-income families at elite colleges. Once enrolled, attending top-ranking, elite schools triples a student’s chance of obtaining a job at a prestigious firm and substantially increases their chances of being in the top 1% of all U.S. earners. Essentially, legacy admissions amount to affirmative action for the rich and already privileged.
The practice of increasing advantages for the privileged is hard to defend as a matter of equity. Most universities say legacy admissions shore up alumni donations and boost student enrollment. However, there has been a history of colleges using the practice as a way to maintain the status quo and as a backdoor strategy to limit newcomers like Jews, immigrants, and other underrepresented groups.
In essence, the civil rights lawsuit against legacy admissions urges the end of legacy out of fairness: if colleges and universities cannot employ racial preferences to admit students, neither should they be able to admit students on the basis of relationships marked by wealth and privilege. They note that 70% of legacy admits are White. While Whiteness is not the purpose for legacy admission, ending legacy admissions can free up space for more disadvantaged students, including underrepresented racial groups who will no longer get a boost.
Still, while ending legacy admissions may be fair, don’t expect it to restore racial diversity to previous levels. Many of the students of alumni still benefit from other types of privilege, giving them a leg up in the process. Experts testified in the Harvard lawsuit that eliminating legacy admissions would increase the number of racial minorities if affirmative action were kept in place, but that it would not offset the decrease in racial diversity from eliminating affirmative action.
Without affirmative action in place, ending legacy admissions may also take away future spots from the children of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Affirmative action helped more Black, Hispanic, and lower-income students graduate from elite universities, therefore diversifying the potential pool of legacy admits. Many disregard this group as a privileged few, but they constitute roughly 30% of the legacy population – not an insignificant number.
At a recent gathering of Asian-American graduates of Harvard in the wake of SFFA v. Harvard, I participated in a discussion about the impact of the opinion for Asian-Americans. If you ask for their thoughts as people who potentially benefited from affirmative action and now have children applying to college, a majority say they agree with calls to end legacy admissions. An informal survey I conducted at a recent Harvard Asian-American Alumni Alliance gathering indicated 60% of those attending want to end legacy admissions, comparable to larger polls.
Yet in private conversations, minority alumni say they want to keep the practice of legacy admissions for at least another generation, because one generation of affirmative action does not close the racial achievement gap or give stability to historically marginalized groups. It might seem self-serving – who wouldn’t want the best for their kids? – but score cards at the Opportunity Atlas, a database that ranks neighborhoods by the chances they provide children to rise out of poverty, say the biggest driver of inequality between races is differences in intergenerational wealth, not immediate bumps in post-college salaries.
Real privilege is not about getting into college. It’s about wielding power in society. The conversation about ending legacy admissions is part of a broader challenge to end race-conscious policies in high school magnet programs, businesses, and the military. Some of these challenges focus on fairness in a multiracial society and others seek to resist the growing racial diversity among elites.
Opponents of efforts to increase that diversity might cite Dr. King as inspiration for their supposed colorblindness. However, in her dissent from the SFFA v. Harvard majority opinion ending affirmative action, Justice Sonia Sotomayor quoted Dr. King accurately. “Quite the opposite of ending all admissions preferences,” Sotomayor wrote, “a racially integrated vision of society… where ‘the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners are able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood’ is precisely what the Equal Protection Clause commands.”
We cannot achieve true racial equity in this country without first making room for underrepresented groups which, for generations, it has denied jobs, housing, civic services, and yes, access to a college education. However, even if the effort to end legacy admissions succeeds, I would caution against becoming too satisfied with that victory. Legacy admissions are part of the problem, but ending them will be only part of the fix.
Ming Hsu Chen is faculty-director of the Center for Race, Immigration, Citizenship, and Equality (RICE) and a professor of Constitutional Law at UC Law San Francisco. She is also a PD Soros fellow and Public Voices fellow of the Op-Ed Project.