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#AdvocateFirstgen by Understanding the Legacy Admissions Debate

The Center / September 12, 2023


person filling out a college admissions application on a ipad

The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College barred the use of race as a factor in college admissions decisions and prompted conversations about increasing diverse enrollments in higher education institutions. As institutions continue to grapple with how to do so, calls for bans on legacy admissions are once again in the news.

As detailed in the March 2022 #AdvocateFirstgen post, “legacy admissions” refers to a practice of taking into account students’ relationships with alumni or donors during the admissions process. By barring consideration of these factors, proponents intend to increase the numbers of admitted first-generation students, students of color, limited-income students, and others traditionally underrepresented in higher education–thereby yielding a more diverse group of students.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, a variety of actions targeting legacy admissions are occurring at the institutional and federal levels:

Other changes made at the same time, such as making submission of SAT and ACT test scores optional and expanding recruitment in diverse communities, make it difficult for policy analysts to assess the true impact of the elimination of legacy admissions.

State-level legislative action targeting legacy admissions preceded the Supreme Court’s decision, though the impact on enrollments remains unclear. In 2021, the Colorado General Assembly passed HB21-1173, which prohibits a governing board of a state-supported higher institution from considering legacy and family relationships to the institution’s alumni when making decisions in the admissions process. A recent analysis of the impact of this decision on increasing diversity of student populations is inconclusive. Other changes made at the same time, such as making submission of SAT and ACT test scores optional and expanding recruitment in diverse communities, make it difficult for policy analysts to assess the true impact of the elimination of legacy admissions. In addition, enrollment numbers at two of the more selective institutions in the state showed inconsistent increases in students of color and first-generation students.

Others argue that legacy admissions do not hinder diversity in enrollment decisions. Rather, the author states that at institutions that he is familiar with, “no legacy is admitted at the expense of a first-generation student; they are admitted at the expense of other privileged students who have other excellent options.” A sense of community is cited as another benefit. Legacy admissions also exist at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), although the historical intent for this practice differs from that behind the practice at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). At HBCUs, the practice is a “way for Black students to preserve their legacy and tough historical roots.” At institutions such as Harvard, these policies were designed to keep certain populations of applicants out.

Given the lack of clarity in Colorado and the numerous arguments for keeping these practices, the elimination of legacy admissions is far from inevitable. Those who #AdvocateFirstgen should maintain their focus on admission practices by encouraging higher education institutions to extend their reach in recruiting students from neighborhoods and schools that are non-traditional sources of prospective students; partnering with community and technical colleges; and attracting veterans as a means to diversity enrollment and enrich students’ educational experiences.


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