Staff Editorial: Post-affirmative action, ending legacy admissions is overdue

On June 29, the conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the use of race as a factor in the college admissions process. This decision ends a policy that has increased socioeconomic diversity in universities’ admissions processes, and the ability to address inequities in admissions is now heavily dependent on how various university administrations move forward.

Chancellor Andrew Martin responded quickly to the decision in his email to the student body titled “Our commitment to diversity,” in which he made a bold promise: “While we must respect and abide by this decision, it’s important for you to know one thing: Our commitment to cultivating, welcoming, and supporting a diverse student body that includes individuals from a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives has not changed and will not change.” 

The University has demonstrated some recent progress in areas of socioeconomic diversity, such as establishing need-blind admissions in 2021 and a newly announced “no loan” financial policy. We appreciate the University’s swift response committing to socioeconomic diversity in a post-affirmative action world. However, the University must consider other areas such as legacy admissions to further demonstrate continued commitment to socioeconomic diversity.

Credit should be given where it is due, and the WashU administration has taken important steps towards socioeconomic diversity in the admissions process through both written commitments and action. In an article with Inside Higher Ed, Martin stated that “a university’s budget, in many respects, is a statement of its values and priorities,” and as such, allocating funding towards financial aid has become a priority for the WashU administration. While WashU once held the lowest position of socioeconomic diversity in the country, its recent actions in need-blind admissions and no-loan policies reflect progress in the University’s admissions processes.

Nevertheless, the WashU administration must also consider other areas in which to address socioeconomic diversity, such as legacy admissions. 

Legacy admissions refer to an applicant having a higher chance of getting admission into a university because they are related to one or multiple alumni. The practice of legacy admissions favors white applicants — in Harvard University’s case, 70% of applicants connected to donors or with legacies are white. An analysis by the Harvard research group Opportunity Insights additionally found that legacy admits are more likely to come from wealthier families, with those from the richest 1 percent being 5 times as likely to be offered a spot at the university than non-legacy applicants with the same test scores. According to a study of an anonymous university, the parents of legacy students were more likely to be top donors to the university. 

Across the country, some universities have responded to the end of race-based affirmative action by eliminating legacy as a point of consideration in admissions. For example, shortly after the Supreme Court decision, Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts college, terminated their legacy admissions. In fact, six universities considered among the top ten in the world no longer consider legacy in their admissions — MIT, UC Berkeley, Oxford, CalTech, Cambridge and University of Washington. 

In July, three groups — Chica Project, African Community Economic Development of New England and Greater Boston Latino Network — filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against Harvard University on behalf of their legacy admissions policy. The Department has now launched a civil rights investigation into Harvard University, examining whether their legacy admissions policy unfairly discriminates against applicants of color who are better qualified than white, wealthy ones. The investigation could end in a case similar to that of the recent affirmative action decision. 

Despite the inequities prevalent in legacy admissions, which are especially relevant in the wake of the affirmative action decision, WashU has failed to release any statement regarding the use of legacy admissions. According to a 2021 article, WashU considers “community members” in its admissions process, including legacy status. 

Universities who have recently ended legacy admissions have already seen progress in socioeconomic diversity in incoming classes. For example, at Johns Hopkins University, within the same time frame in which legacy admissions decreased, socioeconomic diversity at the University increased.

Finally, transparency is key — communication with the student body about growth in socioeconomic diversity cannot end with the Chancellor’s initial response to the Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action policies. 

Especially with the end of race-based affirmative action, the University must continue to take action to address inequities in its admission policies. Need-blind and no-loan policies have been vital changes in the University’s admissions process, yet progress cannot stop there. Ending legacy admissions is similarly just one step in a larger journey towards equity at WashU. 

Staff editorials reflect the opinion of the majority of our editorial board members. The editorial board operates independently of our newsroom and includes members of the junior and senior staff. 

Reilly Brady, Managing Forum Editor

Jordan Spector, Junior Forum Editor

Clara Richards, Editor-in-Chief

Jasmine Stone, Senior Forum Editor

Sylvie Richards, Senior Forum Editor

Ian Heft, Sports Editor

Riley Herron, Sports Editor

Ved Patel, Managing Chief of Copy

Elias Kokinos, Sports Editor

Cathay Poulsen, Chief of Copy

Alice Gottesman, Senior Scene Editor

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