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Six blocks with the letters spelling "LEGACY," in orange, atop a wooden table.

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In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to limit the use of race in the college admission process, many are interested in solutions that create space for those who have historically been excluded from the country’s highly selective colleges and universities.

One of the questions that comes up frequently is, if colleges and universities boldly assert claims about the value of student diversity and want to prioritize the admission of students who have the most to gain from higher education, why wouldn’t they simply eliminate legacy admission programs?

At a moment like this—when those with legal authority recently determined that affirmative action in admission and the promise of equal protection under the law could not be reconciled—it is tempting to find fault with institutions that exercise “affirmative action for the affluent.” Are these institutions protecting racist and classist systems because of an agenda to preserve inequality? To the contrary, I would argue that legacy admission systems—for most of these institutions—reflect a commitment to admitting a diverse class and supporting these students with financial aid.

As vice president for enrollment at Grinnell College, I have a distinct perspective. Grinnell is a highly selective small liberal arts college, admitting around 10 percent of its applicant pool and meeting 100 percent of every student’s calculated financial need—without loans. Such a model is sustainable only at the wealthiest institutions in the country. Like Ivy League institutions, Grinnell has a substantial endowment. Unlike the Ivies, we do not utilize a legacy admission program to help subsidize our budget, even though it might be easier to fund the more than $50 million in need-based financial aid we give every year if we did.

I am not a proponent of legacy admissions programs. But I understand that it is expensive for selective need-blind institutions to admit students based solely on character and qualifications and simultaneously meet 100 percent of financial need for all who enroll.

Imagine that legacy advantages were eliminated at the most selective colleges in the country. Who would occupy the spaces of those legacy students? With important exceptions, now that we can no longer consider race among other factors in the admission process, I believe it would primarily be upper-class students from families who have had uncommon advantages in life but don’t have ties to that specific selective institution. Such a change would hardly be good news for students from historically excluded populations.

Let’s suppose we eliminate legacy preferences to increase the number of seats available that might go to historically excluded populations. With less tuition revenue and philanthropy from wealthy students and families, how would annual budgets be funded at America’s most elite institutions? The go-to answer: the endowment.

At Grinnell, our endowment will fund nearly 60 percent of our operating budget this year, and we will award need-based financial aid to 65 percent of our students at an average grant of over $52,000. Practicing need-blind admission for domestic students and meeting 100 percent of need for all our students has helped us successfully recruit a diverse, highly qualified student body where less than half identify as white U.S. citizens.

Such an investment in financial aid promotes robust student diversity on campus, but endowments have limits both in terms of the payout they generate and the restricted use of funds that are part of them. They are not a checking account for the institution and must be carefully stewarded to support both operations and need-based financial aid. Without the reliability of annual contributions from our endowment, our funding model—and that of many need-blind institutions—would not work.

The Grinnell College endowment, like those at other selective colleges and universities, usually provides adequate returns to meet increasing operational costs without eroding the principal. But if operating costs increase more than endowment returns, it threatens our long-term ability to deliver a high-quality educational experience. Like it or not, cultivating the goodwill of alumni donors through legacy admission programs can help fund significant investment in financial aid. It is certainly more financially challenging to support Grinnell students without the philanthropic contribution that legacy admission programs are purported to generate.

When asking about legacy admission programs at the most selective colleges and universities in the U.S., it is important to recognize that millions upon millions of institutional dollars have been dedicated to the financial aid necessary to achieve and sustain the enrollment of outstanding low-income students, a group that tends to include more students of color. These investments in need-based financial aid overwhelmingly dwarf government support of the students enrolled at these universities. The Department of Education has opened a civil rights inquiry into Harvard University’s use of legacy preferences, sending a signal that access to selective institutions is a priority. In response, we should also ask the department why there isn’t more government support for students with demonstrated financial need who are attending these institutions.

Student diversity was a by-product of race-conscious admission through which we could examine the full context of an applicant’s identity and experience. Many of us preferred that to the anticipated results of a system based more on traditional definitions of merit with race-blind allegiance to the highest test scores and grade point averages. Legacy admission programs threaten our illusions of fairness in the admission process by perpetuating a revolving door of opportunity for the wealthiest applicants for admission at the most revered institutions. Yet it is also true that many colleges and universities with legacy programs have invested exponentially more time and money in recruiting historically excluded populations than they have the progeny of wealthy alumni. And, at least for this moment in history, they are as racially diverse as they’ve ever been.

Current predictions and the experiences of selective public institutions in the states that already observe the limited use of race in admission suggest that selective institutions everywhere will likely enroll fewer BIPOC students without the legal protection to consider race as a factor among many in the admission process. That will remain true even if we abolish the use of legacy admission at selective institutions. Instead, the most highly qualified applicants with access to a plethora of advantages will likely replace the überwealthy who currently occupy those spaces. I would rather our highest-ranking institutions be afforded the legal protection that served equity goals for generations than place false hope in the premise that abandoning legacy preferences will significantly expand the availability of seats for historically excluded students.

Joe Bagnoli serves as vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College in Iowa. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Berea College in Kentucky (which admits only low-income students) and a Ph.D. in higher education policy evaluation and analysis from the University of Kentucky.

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