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I was a legacy. Sort of. Maybe.
College legacies, also known as legacy admissions, gained a lot of attention last month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race could no longer be used in college admissions decisions.
Pretty quickly, many people wondered why it was OK for prestigious universities, like Harvard, which was part of the court case, to accept lots of white students who have potentially weaker academic qualifications but whose parents went to these schools while not giving a slight preference to Black students. A lawsuit has already been filed challenging legacy admissions at Harvard.
Legacy admissions, the practice of accepting the children and other relatives of alumni, are part of the less-than-transparent college admissions process. By some counts, legacies are admitted to some highly selective colleges at far higher rates than non-legacy students. At some highly selective schools, legacy students outnumber all Black and Hispanic students combined. The children of donors and faculty are also often admitted at higher rates. Ditto for athletes. To be clear, many legacy students are well qualified, but some are also admitted with less impressive academic records.
Why does this matter? The short answer is that privilege begets privilege. If you have educated and well-connected parents, generally your path through the world, including gaining admission to a college of your choice, is easier.
Here’s my story. My father briefly attended Bowdoin College. He went there because his uncle, who ran the private school that my father attended in St. Louis, was a Bowdoin graduate and encouraged him to attend the college in Brunswick.
My father’s tenure there was short lived. He was drafted into the Army during his freshman year and, after training at several bases in the U.S., was sent to Europe. He landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy and marched across the continent.
After World War II, he did not return to Bowdoin and instead finished college closer to home in Missouri. He never donated money to the college. My mother, who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Adolf Hilter’s campaign to exterminate Europe’s Jewish inhabitants, did not go to college.
Did I get into Bowdoin because my father briefly went there? Maybe. Maybe it was because I was from Colorado and the college wanted more geographic diversity. Maybe it was because I attended a public high school amid a sea of applicants from prestigious private prep schools. Maybe it was because I had a high GPA and class rank (it wasn’t because of my SAT scores, which Bowdoin doesn’t require).
Whatever the reason, I was able to attend a prestigious college far from home in large part because of my family’s support. If my father hadn’t attended Bowdoin, I may have never known about the college. If my parents didn’t have the financial wherewithal, I likely would have gone to a less expensive school.
In other words, my privilege helped, as it has helped generations of (mostly white) students.
Because of centuries of systemic racism, including policies that stifled homeownership among Black Americans, Black families have been less able to build financial wealth. Because Black students were long excluded from colleges and universities, they don’t often have long family histories of attending prestigious schools, which increases their chances of attending these schools.
This is what affirmative action was meant to address. By allowing campuses to consider race in their admissions, the hope was that more students of color would attend colleges and universities, including the top schools, like Harvard, that have educated generations of our country’s leaders, including Supreme Court justices.
Affirmative action in higher education isn’t a panacea, but it has had some success as racial diversity has increased on campuses. The number of Hispanic students especially grew between 1980 and 2020.
Without affirmative action, many college campuses are likely to become less racially diverse. And, because of their long role in producing leaders in government and industry, our leadership will likely be less diverse.
College admissions systems that give preference to legacies but not to people of color who had long been shut out of higher education aren’t just bad for young Americans seeking to further their education. It is bad for all of us when some groups are excluded from leadership and prosperity. That’s why last week’s Supreme Court decision is so discouraging.