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University of Southern California

When competitive colleges are asked about legacy admissions, they generally say that legacy applicants (those who are the children or relatives of alumni) meet the required academic qualifications for acceptance. Most admissions officers say these students are exceptionally qualified.

But three private universities in California acknowledged to the state that in recent years they admitted some legacy students who did not meet their minimum admissions requirements, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The institutions are Pepperdine University, the University of Southern California and Vanguard University. Other private colleges, all complying with a new state law requiring them to report on legacy admits, said they did not admit anyone who failed to meet minimum requirements.

USC reported offering admission to eight students over the course of four years who were related to donors or alumni but didn’t meet admission requirements, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. Two students admitted to USC in the 2021–22 academic year did not meet the university’s minimum math requirement; two others did not submit proof they graduated from high school. One of the students was a Syrian refugee, and Southern Cal said, “We have no reason to believe that she did not graduate.”

Pepperdine reported to the state that it offered admission to fewer than 10 legacy students who did not meet the university’s standards in each of the 2020–21 and 2021–22 academic years. A spokesperson said one student was admitted each year.

Vanguard reported fewer than 10 such students admitted in three of the past four academic years.

USC noted in its reports that students with ties to donors or alumni are given a “special interest tag” on their applications, and the “existence of a tag does not guarantee an applicant’s admission, nor does it shift an applicant to a fast-track admission process. Students whose files include a special interest tag are evaluated through the same rigorous process as untagged applicants.”

In another article, The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Stanford University’s numbers. All the legacy Stanford students met admissions standards, but they made up 15 percent of undergraduates at the university.

The number of Stanford’s admitted class (when to get in regularly, fewer than 5 percent of applicants are admitted) who are legacies adds to the reports on USC, Pepperdine and Vanguard. There has been a growing amount of scrutiny of legacy applicants in recent years.

Many advocates for education equity have criticized legacy admissions for years. The critics note that those who benefit are wealthier and whiter than the population as a whole.

And this issue has taken on new urgency in the wake of the Supreme Court decision last month barring affirmative action in college admissions. Many critics of the decision have noted that just as the Supreme Court was making it more difficult for colleges to admit African American and Latino students, it did nothing about legacy admissions.

The decision was the result of lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote of Harvard, “Its preferences for the children of donors, alumni, and faculty are no help to applicants who cannot boast of their parents’ good fortune or trips to the alumni tent all their lives. While race-neutral on their face, too, these preferences undoubtedly benefit white and wealthy applicants the most.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson also referred to legacy admissions in a dissent to the suit against UNC.

“Imagine two college applicants from North Carolina, John and James,” Jackson wrote. “Both trace their family’s North Carolina roots to the year of UNC’s founding in 1789. Both love their state and want great things for its people. Both want to honor their family’s legacy by attending the state’s flagship educational institution. John, however, would be the seventh generation to graduate from UNC. He is white. James would be the first; he is Black. Does the race of these applicants properly play a role in UNC’s holistic merits-based admissions process?”

Jackson later said, “We return to John and James now, with history in hand. It is hardly John’s fault that he is the seventh generation to graduate from UNC. UNC should permit him to honor that legacy. Neither, however, was it James’s (or his family’s) fault that he would be the first. And UNC ought to be able to consider why.”

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