After Students For Fair Admission, We Must End Legacy Admissions

This summer, the Supreme Court decided to gut affirmative action, calling into question the practices of admissions offices across the country, including Swarthmore’s. Swarthmore’s admissions process is guided by a commitment to “living in a community of people with diverse backgrounds.” After the decision, President Val Smith  stated that Swarthmore “will comply with the law,” not allowing the Court’s ruling to “erode [the college’s] steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion.” 

As the SGO committee chair for diversity and inclusion, I had serious questions for the Office of Admissions on how they were supporting two contradictory ideas: abiding to a law that prohibits the consideration of race in college admissions and committing to diversity and inclusion. I met with Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90 on Dec. 4 to discuss how the admissions office is prioritizing diversity and inclusion following the SCOTUS decision. But before delving into the interview, it is important to understand the context of legacy admissions policies.

According to U.S. News, legacy admissions gives some students preference over others because the applicant is related to an alumnus — usually a parent,grandparent, or sibling — of the college they are applying to. Associate Professor of Education at the University of Maryland Julie Park stated that, “Being a legacy is kind of like getting the Disney Fastpass to go to the front of the line.” In the aftermath of the Court’s ruling, legacy admissions have become controversial. Opponents of affirmative action claim that it “discriminate[s] against white males” by giving “preferential treatment” to women and racial minorities. However, affirmative action provides a more equitable college admissions process by giving women as well as ethnic and racial minorities opportunities that educational institutions have historically denied to them.

Between 2014 and 2019, Harvard accepted legacies at a rate of 33%, more than five times its overall acceptance rate. In addition, 70% of Harvard’s legacy applicants are white. The roots of legacy admissions are entrenched in the exclusion of racial and ethnic groups. Even after the civil rights movement allowed more Black students to attend selective universities, it did not substantially increase the amount of Black students that were enrolled in these institutions. By 1995, 96% of all living Ivy League alumni were white. The predominantly white, elite university alumni pool means that legacy admissions will disproportionately favor white applicants. 

Now that race can no longer be considered in college admissions, and legacy admissions continue to exist, how can we expect to see more students of color in elite institutions that have continually gate-kept wealth and privilege for the benefit of rich white people? I met with Dean of Admissions Jim Bock to address these concerns and see how Swarthmore would handle the Court’s decision and address legacy admissions. 

I started off by asking Bock about what legacy means in the context of Swarthmore admissions. Bock replied that “Swarthmore’s legacy policy is limited” because it only extends to “parents and/or siblings [who] attended Swarthmore.” He also added that “while that connection is considered during the admissions process, it does not necessarily impact the decision” to admit a student. 

The number of legacy admits accepted to Swarthmore  is large. About 16% of students enrolled at Swarthmore in 2020  were legacy students. A total of 1,439 students were enrolled in Swarthmore in 2020, meaning that roughly 230 students enrolled in 2020 were legacies. 

I then asked Bock about how the Court’s decision has affected admissions. Bock replied that Swarthmore is “obligated to follow the law” and that they must “make admissions decisions without regard to race.” Given the change in Swarthmore admissions, what is the college doing to uphold its commitments to diversity? Bock said that the Supreme Court decision does not limit the admissions office’s “ability to create an outreach strategy that considers race — from email campaigns to school visits.” 

It seems that the admissions office is trying to commit to their goals for maintaining diversity and inclusion on campus through outreach efforts. Bock added that partnerships with national and local community-based organizations such as Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, EMERGE, College Match, QuestBridge, and the Coalition for College have “an express goal of reaching traditionally marginalized students.” He also mentioned that Swarthmore is looking “to increase the number of Questbridge matches this year as part of [Swarthmore’s] outreach efforts.” 

Bock did see one positive to legacy admissions at Swarthmore College. He stated that in the most recent classes, “over a third of legacies (inclusive of all students who had any legacy connection) are domestic students of color, and about 5% are first generation college students, and well over half applied to need-based financial aid.” Bock said that over time, Swarthmore admissions “has been able to expand outreach to underserved and underrepresented students from all backgrounds” by increasing “the yield of these students while maintaining a limited legacy policy.” 

I pushed back against Bock’s claims. To start, multiple statistical models show that changes to the current admissions process and class-based admissions on its own would not provide similar levels as race-based admissions. This fact was outlined in an amicus brief submitted to the Court in the Students for Fair Admission case from the University of Michigan. It stated that class-based admissions don’t increase racial diversity, and that using it as “the sole means to increase nonwhite enrollment can exacerbate stereotypes rather than alleviating them.” After affirmative action was banned in Texas, Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin created partnership programs with underrepresented schools to recruit and provide financial aid and support to a select number of students. However, even with the programs and automated admissions, those eligible for these programs were “still less likely to enroll in these more selective universities relative to other high school students.” 

As for his comments on the fact that some legacy students are domestic students of color, first-generation, or applying to financial aid, I believe that the only reason why some legacy students are now from these demographics is because of race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions. Hispanic freshmen enrollment at Berkeley and UCLA was about 20% with race-based affirmative action programs, and after the ban, it plummeted to 11%. The enrollment  of Black first-year students went from 9% with race-based affirmative action programs to 2% after the ban. That 11% and 9% of Hispanic and Black students who later became alumni and offered some kind of “legacy” benefit to their siblings or children was an extremely small number to begin with, and became dismally smaller following the affirmative action ban. 

These statistical trends can be expected to repeat at Swarthmore.. The reality is that the majority of alumni at elite colleges like Swarthmore are white and high income, and legacy policies disproportionately benefit this demographic. People of color are less represented in college admissions, and their representation in legacy admissions will dissipate after banning race-based affirmative action policies. The question then is: why won’t Swarthmore College end legacy admissions?

When I asked Jim Bock about what he thinks about ending legacy admissions, he gave a very vague answer: “we review our policies on an annual basis” and that “any change would be after full review and informed by data.” 

Ending legacy admissions is important to preserve diversity at Swarthmore. Legacy admissions has proven to privilege certain groups over others: many highly selective schools continue to admit more legacy students than Black and Latinx applicants, and the rate of admission for legacies is more than three times higher than for non-legacy applicants. The systematic exclusion of students of color from higher education means that white students benefit most from legacy admissions. Ending legacy admissions has a proven track record of increasing diversity in schools: when Johns Hopkins University eliminated legacy preferences in 2014, the number of first-generation students and Pell-eligible students increased. Between 2013 and 2021, their numbers increased by approximately 10% and 7%, respectively. 

Among students, there has been broad support to end legacy admissions. In 2019, for example, The Phoenix editorial board outlined arguments for ending legacy admissions: “Legacy admissions as a general practice continues to perpetuate racism and classism; the hidden scandal is that this remains acceptable and prone to fervent defense.” 

Students must call on the college to end legacy admissions and aim for creating an environment at Swarthmore that truly commits to diversity and inclusion.

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