The nation’s highest court decided in Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard on June 29 that universities could no longer practice racial discrimination in the name of diversity.
The court made clear that, under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.” In other words, there is no such thing as good racial discrimination in college admissions.
With the question of racial preferences in admissions settled, renewed attention has been brought to legacy preferences (the practice of making it easier for the children of alumni to gain admission to their university of choice).
While we usually associate legacy preferences with elite private universities, they are also used in North Carolina’s public universities, most notably UNC-Chapel Hill, where out-of-state legacy applicants are granted an extra review of their application.
As with racial preferences, it is difficult to quantify how much of an advantage legacy students get from the practice. The Daily Tar Heel reported in 2019 that vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions Stephen Farmer stated that out-of-state legacy students are admitted at a rate of 40% compared to an admission rate of 13% for all out-of-state students. While those numbers are eye-popping, factors other than legacy status may have also contributed to the difference.
However great or small the advantage of legacy status, it has no place in our public universities, which should base admissions on individual merit.
The most obvious victims of legacy preferences are those who qualify for admission at selective institutions but are bypassed by legacy students who would have otherwise not been admitted. Those students who are not selected lose access to academic rigor commensurate with their skills and preparedness to realize their potential fully.
Legacy admissions also hurt non–legacy students who gain admission by, in the words of George Leef, “diluting their educational experience.” The practice adds students not as academically prepared as their peers to the student body. As faculty tend to teach to the middle of the ability and eagerness to learn they find in their classrooms, they adjust their materials and expectations downward to account for a portion of their class being less prepared. That diminishes the academic rigor and educational experience for other students.
Perhaps less appreciated is that legacy preferences are a disservice to those legacy students who find themselves behind their peers academically once they enter college. Such a “mismatch” problem has been well-documented for black students admitted during affirmative action programs at selective schools. A 2012 Duke University study found that white legacy students suffered from a similar gap in grade-point average and avoidance of more difficult natural science courses as did black students at the university.
It is hard to see any benefit to legacy preferences other than potentially giving college administrators greater access to alumni funds. But even that supposed advantage is less than it appears. A 2010 study found that “the presence of legacy preference policies does not result in significantly higher alumni giving.” It would be more efficient and honest for UNC System schools to sell a few out-of-state admissions each year in exchange for large donations.
Opposition to legacy preferences is broad and bipartisan. A 2022 Pew survey found that 75% of those surveyed (including 77% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats) said that whether a relative attended the school should not be a factor in admissions. Students for Fair Admissions, the organization that brought the suits that ended race-based admissions, made clear that they would like to see legacy preferences also disappear: “The elimination of these [legacy] preferences is long overdue and SFFA hopes that these opinions will compel higher education institutions to end these practices.”
Legacy preferences in public university admissions are affirmative action for the well-connected and are a disservice to all students. They deserve to join racial preferences on the ash heap of history.
Andy Jackson is the Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation.