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Legacy admissions and the public trust

The facade of the U.S. Supreme Court on a sunny day.
Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

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The Weekly Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

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A ‘broken compact’

The outcome of some of the most-heated debates about college admissions don’t actually have a direct, practical effect on most people.

That’s the case, for example, with affirmative action, which is back before the U.S. Supreme Court, where arguments in two cases are set for Monday.

“For much of higher education, the issue is moot,” The Washington Post noted in a recent story about Americans’ views on the issue. “Nine states, including California, Florida, and Michigan, prohibit consideration of race in public university admissions. Many prominent public universities in other states ignore race. What’s more, a huge number of schools nationwide accept most or nearly all applicants.”

The same is true for another type of admissions policy that regularly comes under fire: legacy preferences for children of alumni. Three-quarters of public colleges, for example, do not provide a legacy preference, according to a report being released today by Education Reform Now, a nonprofit think tank.

That’s not at all to say that these debates don’t matter, of course. The Post went on to say that “stunningly low” admissions rates at prestigious colleges “make the questions of who gets in and who doesn’t — and, especially, whether the process is fair and legal — a topic of outsize cultural and political importance.”

Big questions about the whole higher ed enterprise, in fact, sit at the core of these admissions conversations. And that means a lot is at stake, including in how they shape public perception.

Waning confidence

That’s a point James Murphy, the senior policy analyst who wrote the new report on legacy preferences, makes. Those policies matter for how they impact racial inequity and social mobility, he says, but they also matter because they damage public trust

“Legacy preferences embody higher education’s broken compact with America.” he writes. “If higher education is to slow the public erosion of trust in the fairness and value of college, colleges and universities cannot remain committed to a practice that is patently unfair.” 

In 2020, 787 colleges reported providing a legacy preference, Murphy’s report says, and the practice is more prevalent among private colleges and at colleges in the northeast. But, the report adds, these policies aren’t so entrenched that they can’t be changed.

More than 100 colleges have stopped providing legacy preferences since 2015. Last year Colorado became the first state to ban their use in all public colleges. (Read more about the impact of the Colorado move from Jason Gonzales, our reporter with Chalkbeat Colorado.)

At a time when the public confidence in higher ed is waning, especially among one political party, changing this one policy could make a big difference, Murphy argues.

“Getting rid of legacy preferences, which are despised by the Right and Left alike, is a way for elite institutions to show the country that they need not be elitist, and that their primary mission is to serve society, not themselves.” 

— Sara Hebel

+ Read Naomi Harris’ newsletter this week for more on fairness, race, and the battles over admissions.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas and David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez both graduated from college while serving a life sentence in prison. Illustration by Charlotte West/Open Campus. Photo of Thomas by Eddie Herena. Photo of San Quentin by Shutterstock.

From College Inside: Two lifers talk about the role of college in prison when you think you’ll never get out.

From Pittsburgh: Emma Folts writes about a recent sexual assault at Pitt, the complexities it reveals about campus security, and the students grappling with solutions.

From El Paso: A recent study found one in three community college students struggle with food insecurity. Daniel Perez examines what El Paso Community College is doing to help.

From Mississippi: Enrollment has plummeted at the Gulf Park campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. The steep decline, Molly Minta reports, has embarrassed the state college board and represents a missed opportunity to provide higher ed to one of Mississippi’s growing and economically vibrant regions.

From The Job: Completion may no longer be the name of the game when it comes to state funding, Paul Fain writes. California, Indiana, and Virginia are among the states shifting their focus— and their funding — to high-demand fields and to helping adult workers develop new skills.

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