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End Legacy College Admissions, But Don’t Stop There!

Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that colleges cannot consider race in their admissions process. But it is still legal to give preferable treatment to the children of alumni. If you come from a background of discrimination, colleges aren’t allowed to take that into account – but if you come from a background of privilege, colleges are.

That may be changing. Three states have passed laws making it illegal for colleges to reserve spots for “legacy admissions,” the children of people whose parents went to that college. Right now Maryland, Virginia, and Colorado have all banned the practice, and similar bills are under consideration in California, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Connecticut. 

Similarly, United States Senators Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) have proposed a bill that would ban legacy admissions (and donor connections in admissions) in federally accredited colleges.

This movement is a significant step towards equity in higher education. Studies show that legacy admissions reduce diversity – and that elite colleges are increasingly relying on the practice. 

“Contrary to the meritocratic logic, we find that legacies are neither more qualified applicants nor better students academically,” one recent study noted. “Even so, legacies are up to eight times more likely to be accepted to elite schools than non-legacy students.”

“Because so few parents of color have graduated from these colleges, legacy admissions remain overwhelmingly white,” an article in The Hechinger Report notes. “The unfairness of it all only seems to grow.”

Ending legacy admissions will absolutely make the admissions process more fair. But it also won’t be nearly enough.

The issue with admissions in higher education isn’t that it’s letting too many of the “wrong” people in, it’s that it keeps too many people out on the pretense of being a meritocracy. But college isn’t a meritocracy – there’s no consistent standard for “merit.” Colleges admit some students because their parents went to the school; colleges admit some students because they’re good at basketball, or swimming, or lacrosse; colleges admit some students because their parents give large donations to the school. None of this is about “merit” anymore than having access to tutors and a wealthy school district is. Getting into a college has nothing to do with merit and everything to do with access

The idea that only some people “deserve” to go to college is a serious problem in a time when our economy, at every level, depends on more workers having access to higher education. Excluding some people hurts everyone. 

Ending legacy admissions is a good step, but we also need more access to a college level education for everyone. 

Calbright is one model of how this could work. A free, online, community college that accepts all adult Californians with a high school diploma (or equivalent) who apply. The job of our admissions department isn’t to screen people out, it’s to help them get in. With a system like that, legacy admissions aren’t an issue.

That shows in our student body, which is as diverse as California.  

  • 79% of Calbright students identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
  • 90% of our students are 25 or older (the median age is late 30s)
  • And 33% of Calbright students are parents or caregivers (compared to approximately 10% across the CA Community Colleges system).

When you make college accessible, people who are traditionally excluded will enroll.

A better approach to college admissions is possible, and in California we’re proving it.

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