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Affirmative action for white college applicants is still here

Legacy admits, athletic recruits, and the children of donors, faculty members, and VIPs still have a leg up under the Supreme Court’s new ruling.

People in the distance viewed through the ornate iron gate at Harvard
People walk through the gate at the Harvard University campus on June 29, 2023, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

The Supreme Court’s decision to effectively ban the consideration of race in college admissions reversed more than 40 years of precedent. It also left other kinds of admission preferences in place — ones that often benefit white students.

For decades, the Court held that schools could consider race as one of many factors in the holistic review of an applicant, a consideration that could help foster diversity on campus.

The majority opinion laid out how it worked. Harvard’s final stage of deciding to admit or reject students is a step called the “lop,” in which four factors are evaluated: whether an applicant is a legacy, meaning an immediate family member went to Harvard; whether they were recruited as an athlete; whether they are eligible for financial aid; and their race.

Race is now unconstitutional to consider, but other preferences remain.

One study found that these preferences give an edge to white applicants. Among white students admitted to Harvard, 43 percent received a preference for athletics, legacy status, being on the dean’s interest list, or for being the child of a faculty or staff member, and without those advantages, three-quarters would have been rejected.

Many colleges don’t have selective admissions at all. But at those that do, the Supreme Court, in other words, left plenty of discretion for college officials to fill their student bodies with the children of donors or employees, or with lacrosse, tennis, or football players, or with the children of alumni. Only the effort to create a racially diverse student body is now all but banned.

While the Supreme Court left these preferences untouched, the Court’s decision is already renewing the debate over them. The federal Education Department has opened a civil rights inquiry into Harvard’s legacy admissions preference after a formal complaint from three advocacy groups. The complaint said the process discriminates against qualified Black, Hispanic, and Asian applicants in favor of less qualified white applicants.

“Well before the decision came down there have been conversations about what to do about the legacy boost, for example,” said Adam Nguyen, the founder of Ivy Link, an organization that advises families, who pay at least $150,000 beginning when their child is in middle school, on college admissions. “People have long questioned why legacy even exists. In a democratic society, it seems intrinsically unfair that the children of alumni, generation after generation and by virtue of birth, get that privilege. These conversations are still sensitive but they shouldn’t be happening behind closed doors anymore.”

Protests and lawsuits against “affirmative action for white people” have already ensued.

“There’s no birthright to Harvard. As the Supreme Court recently noted, ‘eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.’ There should be no way to identify who your parents are in the college application process,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, one of the groups on the complaint to the Education Department. “Why are we rewarding children for privileges and advantages accrued by prior generations? Your family’s last name and the size of your bank account are not a measure of merit, and should have no bearing on the college admissions process.”

Legacy status gives students a significant leg up

Legacy students receive a boost during the admissions process because they are a family member of someone who attended the college — in some cases just parents; in others, grandparents, cousins, and even aunts and uncles count, too.

Some schools draw a distinction between primary legacies, whose parents attended as undergraduates, and secondary legacies, a lesser preference for those whose parents attended as graduate students, Nguyen told Vox.

Colleges say they use legacy admissions for a few reasons. One is to bolster their yield rates — the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll, and a crucial number that admissions offices watch closely. Applying as a legacy student suggests that you’re more likely to attend if you get in.

A bigger reason, though, is alumni engagement and funding. According to schools that consider legacy as a factor during holistic reviews, legacy students are more likely to stay connected to the college over generations and then are hence more likely to donate to the institution later on. (One study suggests the benefits to colleges might be overstated: Looking at data from 1998 to 2008, of the nation’s top 100 schools, “there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities.”)

Schools that offer legacy preference say it is only one factor in an applicant’s profile. That means that legacy can boost an otherwise strong application, but doesn’t typically have the power to sway admissions officers to move a student from the “no” to “yes” pile on its own.

Still, the difference between admission rates for legacy students and everyone else is striking. The Harvard v. Students for Fair Admissions case brought attention to the fact that between 2010 and 2015, the admission rate for legacy applicants at Harvard was higher than 33 percent, compared to 6 percent for non-legacies. More than 20 percent of white students admitted to Harvard during that period had legacy status.

Of the nation’s top 100 universities in the U.S. News and World Report, about three-quarters use legacy preferences; virtually all of the nation’s top 100 liberal arts colleges do. Georgetown University’s 2024 class of 3,309 admitted applications is 9 percent legacy; Princeton’s 2025 class has 150 legacy students, 10 percent of the class; at Yale, it’s 14 percent. Stanford admitted just 4 percent of applicants to the class of 2023, but 16 percent of those admitted had a legacy background.

Legacy admissions developed in the 1920s to discriminate against Jewish and Catholic applicants and favor Anglo-Protestant dominance. A century later, it still reinforces privilege: Underrepresented students of color make up 12.5 percent of applicants at selective colleges but only 6.7 percent of the legacy applicant pool. One study found that in Harvard’s class of 2019, 70 percent of legacy students were white and 41 percent of legacy admits had parents who earned more than $500,000 per year. At Princeton, 73 percent of legacy students in the class of 2023 are white.

Criticism of legacy admissions is nothing new. But whether the Court, or anyone else, will step in and ban universities from considering legacy status remains to be seen. A number of elite private schools, including Amherst, Johns Hopkins, and Pomona, and public institutions, including the University of Texas and the University of California, have ended legacy admissions preferences in the past few years; some, including MIT, have never used it.

But others have recommitted to legacy preferences. A spokesperson for Princeton told the Wall Street Journal in 2020, in the wake of the college admissions scandal, that “as our student body diversifies, our alumni body diversifies, and, in turn, the children of alumni diversify.”

“Some schools are slicing the data to examine which alumni actually donated and how much they donated, and in some cases choosing not to give boosts to alumni who don’t participate or give back to the school,” Nguyen said.

Legacy admissions have also divided students, including legacies themselves: In 2019, one legacy student at the University of Pennsylvania wrote that she was proud to embrace “her Penn heritage” since “we need legacy admissions” for “potential philanthropy,” brand building, school spirit, and community. Legacy allows families to “gain wealth and prestige,” the student wrote; in response, a legacy student at Princeton — the seventh in her family to attend the institution — argued that “Princeton does not need legacies to maintain its standing” nor should legacy preferences at the institution “increase an applicant’s chances of admission nearly fourfold, from 7 to 30 percent.”

Being an athlete is the strongest admissions preference of all

The recruitment process for athletes at Harvard is well-documented. Student-athletes admitted to Harvard receive “likely letters,” advance notice from team coaches that they likely have a place in the incoming freshman class. Some are recruited as early as sophomore year in high school. Prospective athletes are usually invited to campus during junior year, the fall before they apply to Harvard, to meet with current student-athletes and attend classes and practice. Coaches also write special recommendations for recruits, which the admissions office takes into consideration during the holistic review process, and give advice.

This is typical at selective colleges, and it tends to benefit white students. Excluding football, basketball, and track and field, college athletes are “disproportionately white, wealthy, and suburban.” In 2018, the Atlantic reported that 65 percent of Ivy League athletes and 79 percent of Division III New England Small Collegiate Athletic Conference athletes are white, and that nearly half of Harvard athletes in the class of 2022 come from households with annual incomes above $250,000. Research shows that great access to athletic facilities, recreation centers, and parks increases the likelihood that a student will become a student-athlete.

Critics say that the admissions process benefits students who are already privileged. Recruited athletes tend to have had opportunities that allowed them to hone their skills, like the chance to attend expensive training summer camps or receive private coaching.

Plus, there’s some evidence that recruits are allowed to meet lower standards. In 1985, the Council of Ivy League Presidents made the Academic Index (AI) to compare the academic qualifications of recruited athletes against that of the general student body, taking into consideration class rank, SAT scores, and SAT subject tests. Historically recruited athletes needed only an AI of 171 to be accepted, on a scale of 170 to 240. (It’s now 176.) Although colleges don’t release their academic index for all students, at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the most commonly cited number is “around 220,” meaning athletes meet a much lower bar.

The early 2000s book Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values found that athletes with below-average standardized test scores were twice as likely to be admitted and four times more likely to be admitted as applicants from underrepresented groups. A study from researchers at Princeton found that the advantage athletes are given is similar to scoring a 1400 versus a 1200 on the SAT.

The most famous athletic admissions scandal of recent years was the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, in which parents bribed coaches to recruit their children as athletes. In some cases, the children did not have a record of ever playing the sport. At Yale, one student’s parents paid a college advisor $1.2 million to get her into the school. The school’s head women’s soccer coach recruited the student for $400,000.

Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono, who conducted research for the plaintiffs in Students for Fair Admissions, concluded that athletic admissions were more troubling than legacy admissions. “If you eliminate athletic preferences at Harvard, white admission rates go down, Black admission rates stay the same, and Hispanic and Asian rates go up,” he said. “Over 16 percent of white admits are athletes at Harvard, which is significantly higher than for Black students.”

Critics also argue that colleges merely place such an emphasis on athletic recruiting due to the revenue athletics bring in. In 2019, the Ivy League made $30.1 million in football alone. For small schools, research has found that they rely on sports programs to maintain enrollment and avoid being shuttered. At some of these schools, athletes make up more than half the student body.

Supporters say athletic recruitment should not be lumped in with legacy admissions since recruited athletes have earned their place. Supporters argue that the talent, work ethic, and skill of athletes diversify campuses. But critics don’t ignore the reality that there are disparities in access to elite training that make certain sports less diverse when it comes to race or socioeconomic status. “Majority-nonwhite and lower-income communities have fewer recreational centers and sports offerings than white, affluent neighborhoods that apply their greater tax dollars and private funding to offer them. So it’s no surprise that children from wealthier communities play sports more frequently,” researchers wrote. Plus, niche sports, sometimes colloquially called “country club sports” such as fencing, lacrosse, crew, sailing, ice hockey, water polo, and squash cost thousands for any child to play in a given year.

Going forward, the pushback may force schools to recruit for fewer teams. “I don’t think the major sports are going to get impacted. It’s really the niche sports since they give preference to children whose families have resources,” Nguyen said. “A lot of these niche sports may just become club sports.”

The future of admissions for children of donors, celebrities, public figures, and college faculty

Other admissions boosts have come under scrutiny in recent years: bumps for the children of donors, celebrities, and the institution’s employees.

Children of faculty, once called “Fac brats,” at public and private institutions have historically gotten boosts during admissions and even free tuition. Harvard’s then-director of admissions told the New York Times in 2005 that “If all else were equal in terms of excellence, we would certainly tip, we would certainly give the advantage to the faculty child. It’s like what we do with alumni. It might even be a bigger tip.”

A report from the Chronicle of Higher Education that same year found that more than two-thirds of the country’s top colleges and universities surveyed gave “extra admissions consideration” and tuition discounts or waivers for children of employees. Colleges have defended this practice by saying it allows them to recruit high-quality faculty and improve employee retention.

In a 2003 Wall Street Journal article Daniel Golden, now a ProPublica editor, noted that in addition to giving preference to the children of alumni, colleges were starting to bend admissions standards “to make space for children from rich or influential families that lack longstanding ties to the institutions.” According to the articles, schools, through referrals or by word of mouth, would identify students from well-to-do families and solicit their families for donations once the student was enrolled.

At the time, the director of development at Duke told the Wall Street Journal that they don’t trade admissions for a donation. But the Journal found that Duke relaxed its admissions standards in those years to admit about 100 to 125 students each year who had been waitlisted or tentatively rejected but came from wealthy families.

While many of these investigations are now decades old, the practice appears to have continued: In 2022, Duke was sued along with 15 other elite private institutions for “maintaining admissions systems that favor the children of wealthy past or potential future donors.”

Jared Kushner, the former senior advisor to former President Trump, is a famous case. The 2006 book The Price of Admission (written by Golden) revealed that he won admission to Harvard in 1999 after his real estate developer father Charles Kushner pledged $2.5 million to the institution in 1998. Kushner’s parents were subsequently named to the school’s Committee on University Resources, its biggest panel of donors.

In 2018, amid the first iteration of the Harvard affirmative-action case, a dean of admissions’ emails with school fundraisers were made public. In the emails, the dean suggested that the fundraiser give special consideration to offspring of big donors or those who had “already committed to a building” or have “an art collection which could conceivably come our way.”

Schools have defended development preferences by saying that development cases bring in money that supports all other students. One analysis of donor giving found that some donations were given with the hope that their child would be admitted.

The affirmative action case also shed light on Harvard’s “dean’s interest list” — students whose parents or relatives have donated to Harvard. Another email that came out of the trial showed the dean of the Kennedy School celebrating the admissions dean for admitting applicants whose families committed funding for buildings and fellowships before their child was even admitted. The trial also revealed a case in which an applicant’s rating on the dean’s list was low because the development office didn’t see a “significant opportunity for further major gifts.”

Also at play are admissions boosts for the children of VIPs. “VIPs, you’re talking maybe the president of China or prime minister XYZ. Their children actually get preferences, believe it or not. Maybe it’s believable but they do and people don’t talk about it,” said Nguyen. “And often, when they get to campus, they attend under pseudonyms or use aliases so you don’t know who they are.” The college admissions scandal revealed that USC officials tagged certain students as “VIP” or “special interest” based on donations and family connections.

But in the end, these admissions preferences remain perfectly legal. It’s only considering race in admissions that is all but banned.

Update, July 25, 3:55 pm ET: This story was originally published on June 30 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to include the Education Department investigation.

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