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Dive Brief:

  • Congressional Democrats said Wednesday they are reintroducing a bill that would ban colleges from giving preference in admissions to children of alumni and donors. 
  • Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York proposed this and last year’s versions of the Fair College Admissions for Students Act. Sens. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Alex Padilla of California are also sponsoring this year’s iteration. 
  • The 2022 bill did not make headway in either chamber, but criticism against legacy preferences has sharpened in the wake of last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling against race-conscious admissions. Legacy admissions tend to favor White and wealthy students. 

Dive Insight:

The Supreme Court decision only applies to a small subset of selective colleges, as most institutions accept a majority or all of their applicants and have no need to account for race in admissions.

However, even though relatively few students attend these highly selective institutions, they ultimately have outsized representation in areas like the judicial system and the high-level corporate world.

Plus, higher education leaders fear greater fallout, such as historically marginalized students being dissuaded from applying to college.

They also worry about colleges or policymakers reading too far into the decision and banning other race-conscious programs, like scholarships.

These concerns have merit, as for example,  the University of Missouri system ended consideration of race in scholarship decisions upon demand of the state’s attorney general, Republican Andrew Bailey. Bailey’s missive cited the Supreme Court decision. 

Legacy admissions preferences have come under significant scrutiny since the ruling, too, as college advocates point out doing away with them would be an easy way to potentially improve campus diversity. 

The newly reintroduced bill would block colleges from participating in federal financial aid programs if they offer legacy seats. 

“It’s not a form of affirmative action that serves our country well,” Merkley said in a news conference Wednesday. “It takes away from the diversity on a campus, it takes away from fairness to get into college.”

Children and relatives of alumni do often get a leg up through legacy admissions.

New research found that high-income legacy applicants were, compared to their peers with similar qualifications, five times more likely to be admitted to the highly selective group of colleges known as the Ivy Plus. That’s the eight colleges that make up the Ivy League, along with Stanford and Duke universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago.

College access groups celebrated the proposed legislation Wednesday.

“We commend Sen. Merkley and Rep. Bowman’s leadership in introducing federal legislation that would halt the unfair practice of preferential treatment to children of wealthy white alumni in the college admissions process,” Jessica Giles, executive director of Education Reform Now D.C., said in a statement. ”Legacy preference is profoundly inequitable and rooted in racism that must end.”