Private colleges wary as California legislator calls for crackdown on legacy admits

The nationwide scandal involving bribery in college admissions has also illuminated all the legal ways wealthy families can game the system. Now the debate over how to respond has hit the California Legislature, and struck a nerve not just with the state’s public higher education system but also with private colleges.

A bill by Assemblyman Phil Ting would bar colleges and universities from receiving state financial aid dollars if they give preference to applicants with ties to alumni or donors. Proposed just this past week, it’s already raising alarm among the state’s private colleges, some of which use so-called “legacy admissions” to cultivate stronger ties with their alumni communities, and the donations that come with them. 

Critics of legacy preferences say they amount to affirmative action for the privileged, giving an edge to children of college-educated parents who are already more equipped to navigate the admissions process.

“This door of legacy admits is completely legal and has been used for centuries to get a certain type of person into the school,” Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, said Thursday in announcing the proposal. One of six measures introduced by a group of Democratic lawmakers racing to respond to the scandal, it’s likely to be the most controversial.

While California’s public universities officially ban admissions preferences for alumni and donors, Ting’s bill threatens to curtail private colleges’ access to the Cal Grant scholarships they receive from the state and distribute to needy students.

“There are serious consequences and potentially a major fallout among especially some of the smaller, more vulnerable institutions in our sector,” said Aram Nadjarian, a spokesperson for the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. The association also released a statement saying that legacy applicants “have a unique connection to the institution” and that colleges should retain the right to consider that as part of their application.

The state doled out $237 million in Cal Grant aid to private, non-profit colleges and universities in the 2017-18 academic year. Just over $21 million of that aid—more than for any other college on the list—went to the University of Southern California, a school at the center of the cheating scandal.

The university declined to comment Friday on its policies related to legacy admits but said in a statement that it was “currently reviewing all admissions procedures” and analyzing Ting’s bill. Legacy students made up about 19 percent of USC’s 2017-18 entering class, according to a post on the university’s admissions blog; the university refers to them as “Scions.”

“It’s important to us that our population of Scions is represented among the entering class,” the blog post reads, while noting that “there will always be legacy students…with very strong applications who don’t receive an offer of admission.”

Stanford University, which accepted only 4 percent of applicants last year, includes legacy status in a range of factors that make up its holistic review process, spokesperson E.J. Miranda said in an email.

“We are studying the proposed legislation and look forward to engaging with the legislature on this topic,” Miranda said.

Some private colleges and universities in the state, including Caltech, eschew legacy preferences.

At Holy Names University in Oakland, more than 70 percent of the 1,000-member student body receive Cal Grants, said spokesperson Sonia Caltvedt. But the legislation wouldn’t affect Holy Names, Caltvedt said, because their admissions process does not favor donors’ children, alumni children or athletes.

“Our mission from the start has been all about access,” she said.

If the bill were to pass, it would likely pose the most problems for highly-selective colleges that want to foster alumni relationships but also rely on Cal Grant dollars to provide better financial aid packages to low-income students than they could fund on their own, said Jerome Lucido, director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at USC.

“They would have to decide, are we going to lose our aid, or are we going to lose this eager, full-paying constituency?” said Lucido, who formerly oversaw admissions for USC and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Banning legacy admits on its own isn’t sufficient to ensure equity, Lucido said, because other admissions categories also favor families with more resources. He cited the early decision process, which requires applicants to be well-informed about their options and, in some cases, able to make a decision without comparing financial aid offers. Some colleges also measure students’ “demonstrated interest” in the school, which they can show by visiting in person, a trip that can cost too much for low-income families.

The extra boost that an applicant gets from being a child of an alumnus, Lucido added, may actually matter less than the simple advantage of coming from a home where college is seen as a priority.

“That said, should [colleges] be practicing affirmative action for the wealthy?” he said. “I think, on the face of it, you have to say no.”

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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