Virginia Dems Call for Immediate Ban on Legacy Admissions

More than 100 colleges and universities have ended legacy admission preferences since 2015.

This is a photo of parents standing with their graduating son.

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Democratic lawmakers are seeking to ban Virginia public colleges and universities’ practice of providing special admission treatment to student applicants related to alumni and donors.

The proposed legacy admissions ban stems from the recent fall of affirmative action on college campuses nationwide. Since the Supreme Court ruled last June that race-conscious admission policies at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina were unconstitutional, schools in Virginia have already taken action to change their admissions policies, which has commonly favored student applicants who are white and are from higher-income families.

Although the court’s ruling did not mandate colleges to take any action, Democrats want to take another step to refine state institutions’ admissions process and support future college applicants by sponsoring legislation banning legacy admission ahead of the General Assembly session beginning on Wednesday.

“Teaching in a classroom, every day, I see how hard these kids try to get into colleges, how much they stress over getting into colleges, and having all these things come together — the Supreme Court case, knowing that Virginia has a higher percentage of its universities use legacy admissions and kind of seeing the role it plays day to day in my day job — it was kind of a no brainer for me to put this bill in to try to make the process a little bit more merit based,” said Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Richmond, who is carrying the Senate version of the bill.

Del. Dan Helmer, D-Clifton, who is carrying the House bill, said far right groups mistakenly believe that race plays an outsized role in college admissions. An actual problem, however, lies in admission decisions being influenced based on alumni status and donations, Helmer said.

“This is about fighting for working-class families to have access to every opportunity and making sure we support democracy and good jobs by providing pathways to the middle class through a college education, and you shouldn’t just be able to buy your way in,” Helmer said.

According to nonprofit Education Reform Now, more than 100 colleges and universities have ended legacy admission preferences since 2015, but 787 still used the practice as of 2020.

State level

It’s unclear how many institutions in Virginia use legacy as an admissions tool. Legacy admissions are often a component of the nation’s most elite schools and top-rated institutions, including Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia.

Virginia Tech leaders announced the day after the SCOTUS ruling it would eliminate legacy as an admissions factor.

The following week, the University of Virginia announced it modified its admissions process by no longer asking applicants to identify themselves as relatives of alumni. Applicants have the option of completing an essay question about their “personal or historic connection with UVA.”

Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, who is carrying legislation similar to VanValkenburg and Helmer’s, said lawmakers need to take action.

“There shouldn’t be other outside influential factors that guide admissions,” McPike said. “We’ve already seen some universities in Virginia start to respond and start to change their policies, which I think is a positive step in the right direction.”

According to the Pew Research Center, a growing number of Americans surveyed state that legacy admissions should not be a factor in admissions decisions, increasing from 68% in 2019 to 75% in 2022.

“Colleges should consider individuals’ life experiences when reviewing their applications, including their socioeconomic status or how poverty has impacted their educational journey,” Attorney General Jason Miyares wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch last August. “Higher education must follow the Supreme Court’s lead and end the superficial legacy admissions system so the door to higher education is truly open to everyone.”

Federal level

Lawmakers in Congress are also seeking to ban universities’ practice of giving special treatment to student applicants connected to alumni and donors.

In November, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, who sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, co-sponsored legislation in Congress called the Merit-Based Educational Reforms and Institutional Transparency Act (MERIT Act).

According to a joint statement by Kaine and bill co-sponsor Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, the legislation, if passed, would amend the Higher Education Act to add a new standard for accreditation in order to prevent accredited colleges and universities – institutions that are recognized for maintaining a certain level of educational quality – from unfairly giving “preferential treatment” during the admissions process.

Under the MERIT Act, “preferential treatment” is defined as making admissions decisions or providing benefits based on an applicant’s relationship with alumni or donors as the “determinative factor.”

“A student’s acceptance into a college should not hinge on whether their parents attended that school or donated a large sum of money,” said Kaine in the statement. “This legislation would help bring more fairness to the higher education admissions process, and ensure that first-generation and low-income students are not put at a disadvantage because of their parents’ educational histories or incomes.”

If passed, the bill will clarify that the new standard shouldn’t be construed to prevent institutions from considering an applicant’s genuine interest in the institution as part of the admissions process, whether they have a legacy connection to the school or not.

“Many institutions currently consider alumni affiliation in assessing an applicant’s demonstrated interest (DI) in attending the school,” Kaine’s office said in a statement Monday. “The DI section in the bill aims to clarify that the institutions can still consider DI, but that the basis of their DI must be equally accessible to all applicants, regardless of their alumni affiliation. So this provision limits the use of DI as a loophole for alumni preference, but doesn’t eliminate DI, which institutions care about.”

The bill will also ensure that religious institutions can make admissions decisions in line with their faith-based values, preventing infringement on religious freedom. The legislation will also require a comprehensive feasibility study to assess improving data collection regarding the influence of legacy and donor relationships on admissions decisions. The legislation was unclear on which institutions the study would apply to.

VanValkenburg said he hopes Kaine is successful, but he added that Virginia lawmakers must do what they can to fix the problem in the commonwealth.

“I know he’s got bipartisan support for that bill, but if they’re not able to pass it in Congress, for the country, we can still ensure that Virginia universities are a little bit more fair based and … are giving every kid a fair shake,” he said.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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