An Elite College Has Dropped Legacy Admissions—It’s Time for Other Higher Education Institutions To Do the Same

Several multicolored lawn chairs are lined up in front of Gilman Hall on the snowy Keyser quadrangle on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, January 2015.

Earlier this month, Johns Hopkins University announced they’d quietly stopped using legacy preferences in their admissions process more than 10 years ago. This change was made in an effort to stop using a deeply ingrained admission policy, rooted in racism, that drove inequality in society. Legacy preference policies provide an advantage to students who have a familial relationship with the university. Just 26 percent of Black students, 20 percent of Hispanic students, 21 percent of Pacific Islander students, and 21 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students have a parent who attended college compared to more than half of white students. Therefore, this policy disproportionately benefits white, wealthy students. By removing this policy, the school hoped to achieve a more equitable and diverse student body. As a result of the policy shift, the school began to see change both in terms of the racial composition of the student body and academic achievement. The number of legacy admissions in each freshman class decreased 9 percent while the number of Pell Grant-eligible students increased by 10 percent. At the same time, according to Johns Hopkins University Vice Provost for Admission David Phillips, the classes are “much more diverse, much more high achieving than it had been previously.” As the nation continues to address systemic barriers to equality for people of color, legacy preferences must be removed from the admission process in order to move toward a more equitable admissions process.

Prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, institutions of higher learning used policies and practices to exclude students of color from their campuses. For example, Harvard University banned Black students from living in dorms formally until 1923, but the practice continued informally through the 1950s. Similarly, Jewish and European immigrant students—who, at the time, were not racialized as white—began gaining admission to these colleges and universities at higher rates. By 1922, Jewish students made up 21 percent of students at Harvard. The university president at the time, A. Lawrence Lowell, warned that if too many Jewish students enrolled, non-Jewish students would stop attending the university. Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and other traditionally religious, white, and privileged institutions reacted negatively to the growing presence of students they considered “socially undesirable” and began developing new guidelines to exclude otherwise-qualified students by measuring a student’s “character.” Throughout the 1920s, many schools in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states instituted legacy admission preferences among other admissions policies to appease the concerns of alumni who were uncomfortable with the increasing number of Jewish students. Institutions began prioritizing subjective qualities to evaluate applicants, including birthplace, athletic ability, and family background. The result is a version of college admissions that still exists to this day.

Despite the progress made in expanding access to higher education, this admissions practice overall still negatively impacts students of color. Today, children of alumni are more than three times more likely to receive admission to the nation’s top-30 elite universities than their nonlegacy counterparts. At Dartmouth, for example, there are more legacy students than African American, Latino, and Native American students, respectively. More broadly, at the nation’s top 100 universities, Blacks and Hispanics are more underrepresented today than 35 years ago. Legacy preference admissions policies, combined with the well-documented failure of standardized test scores to measure aptitude for students of color, creates an uneven playing field for students that legacy admissions further ingrains.

Now, some supporters of legacy preference argue the policy is essential for fundraising purposes, but there is no evidence to support that claim. On the contrary, research shows no relationship between legacy-preference policies and total alumni giving at top universities. Others argue that legacy admissions policies will now benefit students of color, as there is an increasing number of alumni of color. While there are more students of color attending and graduating college, just 36 percent of Black and Hispanic adults ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in college or universities. Of that, only 40 percent and 54 percent of Black and Hispanic students, respectively, are graduating. In comparison, 41 percent of white Americans attend college and 64 percent graduate. White students remain the main beneficiaries of legacy admissions preference today and make up more than 90 percent of legacy admits overall. Universities and colleges are not graduating or retaining students of color at the same rate as their white counterparts. So, while a small portion of students of color may potentially benefit from the legacy preference policy, the discriminatory impact of legacy admissions remains the same.

Johns Hopkins University is ahead of the curve in removing legacy preference from their admissions practices. They understood that this policy only exacerbates inequality and builds on societal barriers for students of color. As our nation continues to grapple with the historical impact of policies and practices rooted in systemic racism, it’s essential that our country’s institutions of higher learning join in that work and remove policies and practices that counter efforts of equality.

Abril Castro is a Research Assistant for Race and Ethnicity at the Center for American Progress.