Legacy Admissions Banned in Colorado

Governor signs bill barring public colleges and universities from factoring an applicant’s family ties into admissions decisions.

June 1, 2021
Governor Jared Polis

Colorado governor Jared Polis signed legislation this week that will bar legacy preferences, which favor the children or other relatives of alumni, in admissions by public colleges and universities in the state.

"Just because your parent or grandparent" went to one of the state's colleges, a student "could take the spot of someone more worthy," said Polis, a Democrat, in signing the legislation.

He noted that "higher education institutions are moving toward being meritocracies" and that colleges should be looking at "who you are … and what your potential is, not who your parents and grandparents are."

State Representative Kyle Mullica, a first-generation college graduate and one of the sponsors of the bill to bar legacy admissions, said he remembered being asked on college applications where his parents went to college, and it made him question whether colleges really wanted him.

"We want to be focused on merit," he said.

The bill itself outlines the rationale for the new state requirement as being about increasing the diversity of students at state colleges.

"In Colorado, there are significant racial and socioeconomic disparities among students who enroll in higher education institutions," the bill states. "Roughly 63 percent of white students in Colorado and 67 percent of middle- to high-income students enroll in a bachelor's degree program directly from high school. Conversely, only 42 percent of Latino students and 47 percent of low-income students enroll in a bachelor's degree program directly from high school."

The bill adds, "Many students who choose not to attend a higher education institution are prepared to attend … Providing preferential treatment to students with familial relationships to alumni of the institution is discriminatory in nature and hurts students who are undocumented, first-generation, immigrants, or underrepresented minorities and who do not have the same relationships to Colorado higher education institutions."

Nationally, more private colleges than public ones use legacy admissions, but the leaders of the state's public colleges did not object to changing their policies.

The University of Colorado at Boulder supported the legislation. It had already dropped consideration of legacy status last year.

Lori Kester, associate provost for enrollment management at the Colorado School of Mines, said via email that although the institution had asked applicants to report legacy status on their applications in the past, "We defined legacy as the child or sibling of a Mines alum and saw this as a strong indicator of interest in Mines. While such indicators are valuable, we supported and anticipated the state's direction on this and will remove this question from our application going forward -- and this information from our system."

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank, noted "Colorado's new status as one of the first states to pass a law banning legacy preferences" and said the move was long overdue.

"A number of states have banned racial preferences, even though there are strong arguments on both sides of that question. Legacy preferences, by contrast, are affirmative action for the rich, which heap additional advantage on the already advantaged," he said. "They are unpopular and un-American. And research finds they don't even increase donations, which is their purported purpose."

While the bill was not controversial in Colorado, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which represents fundraisers nationally, defends legacy admissions. It released a statement listing a number of reasons a college might want to admit a legacy:

  • "A legacy applicant is more likely to accept the offer of admission, allowing the institution to more confidently model its incoming class.
  • "A legacy applicant’s enthusiasm for the institution may lessen the institution’s need to make an exceptional financial offer, freeing up limited scholarship funds for other deserving applicants.
  • "A legacy student’s appreciation of campus lore and traditions can enrich the campus experience for all students."

The statement concluded, "These intergenerational ties can help instill a deep and beneficial commitment to the institution. Such ties benefit the institution in terms of advocacy, support, and continuity -- helping the institution reinforce and fulfill its mission and continue to play an important role in transforming lives and society."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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