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New York state senator Andrew Gounardes


A bill was introduced Wednesday in the New York Assembly and Senate to bar public and private colleges in the state from offering either legacy admissions preferences or early decision.

Colleges that violate the law would be fined 10 percent of the tuition and fee revenue paid by enrolled freshmen the prior year. The funds collected from the fines would go to low-income students in the form of financial aid/scholarships.

The move comes after Colorado lawmakers voted last year to bar public colleges from using legacy preferences. In that case, only a few public colleges used legacy admissions, and they did not oppose the change. There is a similar bill on legacy admissions being considered in Connecticut, and it is being opposed by private colleges in that state.

The New York legislation also comes as the U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would deny federal student aid to colleges with legacy admissions.

“Getting into the college of your choice should be a matter of ability and hard work. It should not be based on one’s family connections or ability to accept an offer without knowing about financial aid options,” New York state senator Andrew Gounardes, sponsor of the Fair College Admissions Act, said at a virtual press conference to promote the bill.

He specifically criticized private colleges in the state for their admissions practices and said they are creating “doors” not to let people in but to block access.

That view was shared by Assembly Member Latrice Walker, co-sponsor of the bill.

“Legacy admissions give an unfair advantage to students with relatives who are alumni of a given school,” she said. “By contrast, low-income students and members of historically underrepresented communities are far less likely to have relatives who are college graduates. This preferential treatment must end. Similarly, low-income students are less likely to benefit from early admissions, because they need time to compare financial aid packages from different schools. We must end these structural barriers. This is about educational, economic and racial justice.”

Officials from a variety of civil rights and education groups that support the measure, including Education Reform Now, Democrats for Education Reform, New America, Our Turn Student Network, Ed Mobilizer and Just Equations, also attended the press event.

“The legacy preference and binding early decision are essentially affirmative action policies for the wealthy,” said Michael Dannenberg, vice president for higher education at Education Reform Now, who first began working on these issues as an aide to the late senator Edward Kennedy. “Admission to college should be based on qualifications of an applicant, not who their parents are or how much money they have.”

Claire Tempelman, a member of the Student Assembly at Cornell University, said, “Legacy admissions are inherently unfair … It’s a relic of an earlier time—goes against values of justice and merit.”

The Student Assembly recently recommended that Cornell give up legacy admissions, but Martha E. Pollack, the president of Cornell, rejected that recommendation.

“It’s important to note that the most important characteristics we consider in admission are measures of academic work like grades and recommendations, as well as extracurricular activities,” Pollack wrote in a letter to the Student Assembly. “Secondary considerations include the applicant’s status as a first-generation or underrepresented minority student, a recruited athlete, a veteran and/or ROTC candidate, to name a few. Having a parent who is an alumnus also falls into this class of secondary considerations. We never admit a student who is unqualified academically, and none of these secondary considerations guarantee admission.”

Pollack noted the benefits of such admissions, including being a source of equity for a more diverse, younger and less wealthy generation of alumni who also want their children to attend their alma maters.

“Many Cornellians loved their experience here; they tell me that it not only launched their career but made them who they are. A surprising number met their spouse here. It’s not surprising that they want their children to go to college here. And it’s by no means only older and/or wealthy alumni who express this view—I hear Cornellians of all backgrounds say this,” she wrote. “Indeed, it’s a little troubling to contemplate stopping consideration of a candidate having a Cornellian parent right at the moment where there are increasing number of alumni from groups who have been historically excluded with children who are college-going age (including Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and other alumni of color).”

The University of Rochester recently revised the legacy information on its website to say it considers as legacies the child or grandchild of an alumnus. The revised definition also says, “Legacy students’ applications will be reviewed using the same holistic, multi-reader review process in which all applicants are reviewed. Legacy applicants do not automatically receive special attention or consideration. Students are not automatically admitted to the University of Rochester based on legacy status.”

It also says, “University of Rochester alumni are an integral part of our community and play an important role in telling our story to prospective students and parents far and wide. By extension we look forward to welcoming future generations of highly-qualified Rochester legacies to join the university family.”

A primary opponent of the bill will be the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents more than 100 private colleges in New York State.

“New York’s private, not-for-profit colleges and universities have long-standing commitments to diversity and graduate 45 percent of the African American and Latinx college students in the state,” said Lola W. Brabham, president of the commission. “There is more work to be done to ensure all students have access to higher education, but this proposal will not achieve that aim and represents an unreasonable intrusion into the admissions practices of private colleges. The Legislature can support the college dreams of students from underrepresented communities by supporting funding for proven student aid and opportunity programs.”

The State University of New York did not take a stand on the bill when asked by Inside Higher Ed. However, a spokeswoman for the system said that three SUNY campuses have early-decision programs. None of the SUNY campuses have a legacy program.

A spokesman for the City University of New York said that CUNY did not have either program.

Gounardes said he was confident the legislation would pass this year.

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