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  • Emma Smith Marrone

The History and Future of Legacy Admissions in Virginia

Courtesy of The New York Times


On January 30, the Virginia House of Delegates unanimously approved Bill 48, a measure that would end legacy admissions in the state’s public institutions. An identical bill had been unanimously passed in the Senate days before. Pending approval of Governor Glenn Youngkin (R-VA), the bill will take effect June 1 and have its first impact on the 2025 admissions process. The legislation reflects action across the nation to increase equal opportunity in college admissions and diversity in student populations following the Supreme Court’s decision last June that ruled affirmative action unconstitutional. 


The bill defines legacy status as “the familial relationship of an individual applying for admission to an institution of higher education to an alumnus of such institution.” The use of legacy status in admissions processes began in the 1920s and 30s. Prior, many Ivy League schools generally accepted students from independent boarding and high schools: a majority white, male, and Protestant demographic. With a rise in applications from emerging immigrant populations, specifically Jewish students, legacy preference often favored applicants from the original select group, excluding immigrants and limiting diversity. 


Today, the consideration of legacy status has been targeted by many as a way of decreasing diversity and putting minority groups at a disadvantage in the admissions process. In July 2023, three Black and Latino groups filed a complaint against Harvard College. The document was submitted to the US Department of Education which argued Harvard’s legacy admissions process unfairly favors white applicants. Seventy percent of donor and legacy status applicants are white, and the admissions rates for these applicants are substantially higher than Harvard’s overall acceptance rate. The groups, including the Massachusetts-based nonprofit The Chica Project, argued that “approximately one-quarter of the white students admitted would not have been admitted if the Donor and Legacy Preferences, among others, did not exist.” 


Harvard has defended legacy admissions, stating that legacy applicants are just as qualified and legacy involvement encourages loyalty to the university, leading to donations that could be used as scholarships. 


Other measures to remove legacy and donor status preference in admissions occurred in November 2023, with Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) introducing the MERIT Act. The legislation similarly calls for an amendment to the Higher Education Act to remove legacy and donor admissions. Senator Young (R-IN) stated that the bill would “promote upward mobility for Americans of all backgrounds.”


Efforts to eliminate legacy admissions have been fueled by the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College. The court ruled that race-conscious admissions violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Prior to the decision, many colleges had used affirmative action as a method of increasing diversity. The use of legacy preference without race-conscious admissions has concerned groups like The Chica Project. Further, the impacts of legacy admissions are seen mostly in selective institutions. Eighty percent of schools that accept 25% or less of applicants use a legacy preference. The Common Data Set reported in 2019 that Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American students are far less likely to attend four-year selective institutions than white students. 


In addition to prohibiting the use of legacy status in admissions decisions, the Virginia bill includes that no school should provide “any manner of preferential treatment” to individuals applying who are related to donors of the institution. 


Some schools in Virginia have already taken steps to remove legacy admissions. In July 2023, Virginia Tech modified its admissions process, removing the early decision option in favor of an early action deadline on the basis that early decision options create unfair advantages for students able to commit without a guarantee of financial aid. Further, the university took the step to eliminate legacy admissions even before Bill 48 was passed, in the hope that these two changes “would improve the admissions process to benefit all students.” 


However, Virginia’s Bill 48 would now affect admissions criteria at both the University of Virginia and The College of William & Mary, which have not yet removed legacy status from consideration in the admissions process and are two of the state’s more selective colleges. William & Mary’s student class of 2027 is 60% white and 5% Black. The University of Virginia reports a similar 2022 student population of over half white and 7.02% Black. Considering the majority white student populations at both of these institutions, Bill 48 may have a significant impact on future demographics; proponents of the act assert that ending legacy consideration will increase diversity, especially in the absence of affirmative action. A spokesperson for Governor Youngkin (R-VA) stated, “The Governor will review any legislation that comes to his desk, but believes admission to Virginia’s universities and colleges should be based on merit,” perhaps signaling there is likelihood that the bill will be signed.

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