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Leaving Legacies Behind

Illustrations by Jocelyn Chu ’23, an Illustration major at RISD

The Supreme Court is poised to rule that affirmative action is unconstitutional when it hears cases this fall. If the Court makes such a ruling, colleges and universities should seize the opportunity to institute comprehensive admissions reform. Affirmative action is unpopular and possibly unconstitutional, but athletic commitments and legacy admissions are similarly problematic and should be eliminated as well. There is little reason to believe that these programs are necessary to produce an exceptionally qualified and diverse student body. In their place, colleges and universities should pursue a model prioritizing academic merit alongside consideration of unique backgrounds and perspectives.

The admissions practices of colleges and universities, particularly “elite” ones, draw frequent fire from both ends of the political spectrum. Liberals focus on the inequity of legacy preferences and athletic admissions, which they argue perpetuate racial and socioeconomic inequality. Conservatives, on the other hand, argue that race-based affirmative action policies are inherently racist, counterproductive, and unconstitutional. Opinion polling suggests that affirmative action, legacy admissions, and athletic recruitment are unpopular with most Americans. Even in the face of all this criticism, elite colleges and universities like Brown continue to defend their admissions preferences, arguing that they are necessary to protect diversity and foster strong alumni relationships.

This fall, the Court will hear two cases directly challenging affirmative action. Students for Fair Admissions, a group opposing affirmative action, has sued both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. It argues that racial preference policies violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and judging by past decisions, it appears Chief Justice John Roberts and other members of the Court’s conservative majority agree. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District 1, Roberts famously held “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Justices Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh have similarly expressed their skepticism towards racial preferences, and given the current makeup of the Court, an outright ban on racial preferences in admissions is a strong possibility.

Despite issues in their implementation, affirmative action policies were borne out of a commendable desire to rectify America’s deeply ingrained history of systemic racism and promote diversity on campus. Defending the continued use of racial preference, Brown University President Christina Paxson argues that race represents a “really important piece of information about a person in the life that they’ve experienced.” Yet, race is just one facet of an individual’s lived experience. Racial background does not automatically consign someone to a given perspective; other factors like socioeconomic class, geography, and family structure can be equally fundamental. For many candidates, race may be fundamental to identity, but for others, it could be tangential. Making assumptions about an individual’s lived experience based on the boxes they check on paper is, at best, lazy policy, and at worst, racist.

One may argue that it is also entirely unnecessary. College applications already give applicants ample opportunities to convey their diverse perspective via personal essays and activity descriptions. By comprehensively evaluating each candidate’s unique identity, schools should be able to assemble a diverse array of backgrounds without considering an applicant’s race as part of their application. 

If affirmative action is eliminated, athletic commitments and legacy preferences should follow. Elite colleges and universities downplay the importance of athletics or legacy status in admissions, but research suggests that both can play a much larger role than administrators care to admit. Admissions data from Harvard, published in the ongoing lawsuit, is staggering. One model suggests that from 2014 to 2019, legacy candidates and athletic recruits enjoyed an increase in admissions odds by factors of eight for legacy students and five thousand for athletes, respectively. Another study, from 1983-1997, of other elite research universities showed those candidates enjoyed more modest admissions odds increases of three (legacy) and four (athletes) times.

It is unclear why elite schools sacrifice academic standards to extend commitments to athletic recruits. Ivy League recruits are technically subject to the same admissions process as regular candidates, but coaches can extend “likely letters,” a massive boost to admissions chances. One study finds that at top research universities, the athletic admissions advantage is roughly equivalent to a 200-point increase in SAT score. At Harvard, data suggest that the academic credentials of a non-athlete candidate with a 1% chance of admission would have a 98% chance of admission as an athlete with their same academic credentials. One justification for this disparity may be that recruits devote a large portion of their time to their sport, explaining their shortfalls in the classroom. Indeed, exceptional achievement on the field, court, or ice is a clear demonstration of dedication and non-academic merit which ought to be considered in college admissions. However, the same is true for any candidate with significant extracurricular pursuits. It is wholly unfair that an athlete can subvert college admissions standards, while a world-class violinist, accomplished community organizer, or champion-level debater receive no similar advantage.

To make matters worse, given the extremely expensive nature of American youth sports, athletic commitments favor individuals with access to expensive club lacrosse teams, personal pitching coaches, or private squash clubs to train at. As such, athletic recruitment perpetuates a pipeline from privileged prep schools to elite universities. Granted, athletics can certainly be a valuable part of a college experience or school culture. However, this can remain true without admissions commitments, which result in Ivy League athletes academically underperforming. MIT, for example, extends no “likely letters” or any other form of admissions commitments, yet maintains 33 varsity athletic programs. Other top colleges and universities should follow suit—keep the sports teams, drop the commitments. 

Similar to athletic admissions, legacy admissions serve a privileged class of applicants. At Harvard, the acceptance rate for legacy students from 2014 to 2019 was 33%, dwarfing the overall 5.5% acceptance rate during that period. Even though legacy applicants are more likely to be wealthy and white compared to the average candidate, administrators like President Paxson and Brown University Dean of Admissions Logan Powell defend their special treatment. Legacy status, they promise, is only a “minor” piece of a much larger puzzle that admissions officers consider. Even if true, this does nothing to absolve the practice. Few would or could defend racism or sexism in a hiring process by claiming that it was only a “minor factor.” To properly justify legacy preference, universities must demonstrate a compelling interest in admitting legacy students. Some argue that financial considerations are at play—yet evidence suggests that legacy admissions does not impact alumni donor behavior. Rather, legacy admissions are a relic of an era in which universities functioned largely as prestige propagators and have no valid place in the current admissions landscape. Several top schools have already recognized this and moved to eliminate the practice—MIT, Amherst, and the University of California system, to name a few. Brown University should be expected to follow suit.. 

By moving beyond affirmative action, legacy preferences, and athletic commitments, colleges and universities can remake their admissions processes in a more equitable mold. A federal ban on affirmative action presents a chance for comprehensive admissions reform—colleges and universities must seize the opportunity to adjust to the modern world.