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A new bill has been introduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives that would ban any college that participates in federal student aid programs from offering admissions preferences to children of alumni or donors.
Similar proposals have failed in the past, and this bill will face a tough road ahead. But several factors have the sponsors and their supporters hopeful this time around.
The bill has support from more than 20 progressive organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
“All students deserve a fair chance to get accepted into the university of their dreams, but legacy admissions policies overwhelmingly work to benefit white and wealthy students while excluding first generation, low-income and students of color from access to higher education,” said Carlos Moreno, senior campaign strategist with the ACLU. He called on Congress to hold hearings and vote on the bill soon.
Another supporter of the bill is Edward Blum, who leads the group challenging the affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Supreme Court.
“From the day we filed our lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Students for Fair Admissions has clearly argued that legacy preferences should be eliminated in order to create a more equitable admissions process for students of all races and ethnicities,” he said. “Regrettably, Harvard, the University of North Carolina and dozens of other competitive schools continue to lower the admissions bar for the children of their alumni by vigorously claiming that these legacy preferences help ‘create a community’ and ‘promote donor gifts.’”
The bill, the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, is sponsored by two Democrats, Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
The proposed legislation also has a potential escape clause for some institutions. The secretary of education may exempt historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions if they can demonstrate that “the preferential treatment is in the best interest of students who have been historically underrepresented in higher education.”
Merkley posted on Twitter Wednesday to promote the bill.
“College admission can hinge on how wealthy or well-connected your parents are—just plain unfair. @RepBowman and I introduced the Fair College Admissions for Students Act to ban legacy and donor preference and make the process fairer,” he tweeted.
Bowman said on Twitter, “It’s time for students that have been disproportionately affected by legacy admissions to gain a fair and equitable advantage in the college application process. Higher education institutions favoring donor and legacy applicants must come to an end!”
Michael Dannenberg, vice president for strategic initiatives and higher education of Education Reform Now, and a long-standing critic of legacy admissions, is optimistic about the likelihood of the measure receiving more support than it has in the past.
“I think the chances are better this time around, because the politics are better. In the short-term,” he said. “What’s most important is having one member in a key position who is willing to force a vote on this issue, even if it might make their colleagues uncomfortable and upset some colleges. But the prospects are good. You’ve got a whole new generation of anti-establishment figures on the left and right who aren’t tied to the same old networks. Those folks are more likely to insist on a public vote on the issue.”
Amherst College eliminated legacy preferences in October. Johns Hopkins also made such a move recently. The California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology do not have legacy preferences, but most competitive private colleges do. Research has shown that legacy applicants are more likely to be admitted than other applicants, and that they tend to be wealthy and white.
“You’ve got young people at highly selective colleges—racial minorities and first-generation students—pledging to withhold their donations until the legacy preference is dropped,” Dannenberg noted. “And there’s recognition that support or opposition to race-based affirmative action isn’t going to be affected by whether there’s a legacy preference or not. Folks’ views on that are set.”
He added that “because college presidents have been proponents of race-based affirmative action, they’ve long been given a pass on issues like the legacy preference, inequitable financial aid and racial disparities in degree-completion rates. That needs to end.”
The Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which represents fundraisers in education, has been the leading group in defense of legacy preferences.
CASE issued a statement Wednesday night that said, “While we deeply share Senator Merkley and Representative Bowman’s goal to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to gain admissions to colleges and universities, CASE is concerned that the Fair College Admissions for Students Act would not achieve this goal.”
The statement continued, “Admissions decisions at the nation’s colleges and universities are complex, and each institution develops acceptance criteria that take into account academic and contextual considerations. Some institutions choose to consider family ties to the college or university as one of many factors in the admissions process. Applicants with family ties to an institution are more likely to accept an offer of admission, allowing the college and university to model its incoming class more confidently … CASE believes that institutions are best positioned to determine the criteria that will help them build a diverse admissions class with an appropriate range of talent, background, and interests. We are firmly committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in education as exemplified through the work of our Opportunity and Inclusion Center and would welcome further conversation with Senator Merkley and Representative Bowman on ways to promote equity and a pathway to higher education for those from historically underrepresented populations.”
CASE added that its standards “make clear that philanthropy is an act of giving and investing in our institutions and in no way should be executed or perceived as an act of quid pro quo.”