Giving preference for legacy students layers on top of their many existing advantages and “perpetuates racial and socioeconomic inequities from past generations,” said Mamie Voight, president of Institute for Higher Education Opportunity Policy, which advocates for solutions to inequities in higher ed. It’s the equivalent, she said, of “rolling out the red carpet for legacy students.”
After the ban on affirmative action, the UC began other efforts to diversify the student body on its campuses. In 2001, UC created an admissions guarantee for the top 4% of students in their graduating class, which later grew to the top 9%. The policy was designed to take into account what excellence looks like for students at different high schools across the state. Universities also began recruiting students from high schools that don’t typically send students there and implemented a comprehensive admissions process that took into account students’ many accomplishments, as well as challenges they had overcome.
Together, these policies helped make University of California schools a possibility for many students who would not have considered them an option before. UC spokesperson Ryan King attributed the UC’s success in enrolling a relatively more egalitarian student body to a host of admissions policies enacted under its core mission of “social well-being and economic prosperity of Californians.”
“The ‘no preferential treatment’ policy is certainly not the sole factor, rather it is a key guardrail that undergirds a comprehensive admissions process,” King wrote in an email.
A chorus of research shows that, even at schools without donor preference policies, wealthy students have a significant advantage in college admissions.
Test scores tend to rise with family income. The rich have access to better schools, with more comprehensive college counseling, and can pay for private tutoring. Students from wealthy backgrounds can apply early decision, giving them a better chance at getting in, while poorer families often cannot afford to commit to a school before knowing the financial aid package.
Legacy preferences are just one of the advantages that confers benefits onto a wealthier alumni base.
“I think that it would be very troubling if a lot of schools eliminated their legacy preferences in the wake of affirmative action, and did not also examine all of these other ways in which they are creating barriers to access for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds,” Voight said.
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