Inside Higher Ed published an essay last week by Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, criticizing public universities that have preferences for legacies, the children of alumni. "The renewed attention on university admissions presents an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about the fairness of all admissions practices. While there is nothing illegal about giving preference in admissions decisions to the children and grandchildren of alumni, that doesn't make it right," wrote McPherson, referring to the recent scandal in college admissions.
One of those who praised McPherson's essay was Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan:
A Michigan spokesman said that the president's tweet was consistent with Michigan policy. But the tweet didn't note that Michigan has been on record for years as defending legacy admissions (although saying they are not a major factor) -- and that Michigan's website (the image above) says that legacy status is considered there.
The University of Michigan's legacy preferences came up in a 2013 Supreme Court hearing on a challenge to the state's ban on public universities considering race or ethnicity in admissions (the ban was subsequently upheld). John Bursch, then Michigan's solicitor general, argued in defending the ban that if the University of Michigan wanted to do more to recruit minority students, it didn't need to consider race in admissions, but could eliminate legacy preferences.
"The first thing is that they could eliminate alumni preferences," he said. "Other schools have done that. They have not. That's certainly one way that tilts the playing field away from underrepresented minorities." (The exchange led to an interesting exchange in which Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that talk of eliminating legacy preferences, which long benefited almost only white people, was coming just as there are minority alumni whose children might now benefit. "It's always wonderful for minorities that they finally get in, they finally have children and now you're going to do away for that preference for them. It seems that the game posts keeps changing every few years for minorities.")
At the time, Michigan defended legacy preferences. Its website said at the time, "The University of Michigan values the relationship it has with current and former students. These students and alumni are part of the Michigan community; they provide service and support to the larger university community. As such, application reviewers take into consideration applicants who have a direct relationship, or stepfamily relationship, with someone who has attended the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor as a degree-seeking student."
Michigan's admissions website still says roughly the same thing in an FAQ about admissions: "Is being a legacy applicant a factor in U-M’s holistic review process? Although not a primary factor in admissions decisions, having a parent, stepparent, grandparent or sibling who attended the University of Michigan is considered as part of the holistic review process."
Michigan officials also offered similar comments to the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, and confirmed the accuracy of those comments to Inside Higher Ed, when the Daily wrote recently about the admissions scandal and the desire of some students that legacy preference should be ended.
Does Michigan consider legacy status today?
Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman, told Inside Higher Ed that legacy status is used for only two purposes. He said that the college does want to acknowledge family relationships to alumni when communicating with parents of applicants about the admissions process. Further, he said that legacy status is an important factor in calculating yield, the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll. Legacy applicants who are admitted enroll at a higher rate than do other applicants. So it's important for enrollment planners to know whether those in the applicant pool are legacies, he said.
But he insisted that legacy status plays no role in actual admissions decisions.
As to the FAQ suggesting otherwise, he said that "perhaps we can do a better job of spelling that out."