Study Proposes That Legacy Admissions Are Unlawful

A study to be published in the Santa Clara Law Review contends that legacy preferences for admission to the nation’s highest-ranked colleges and universities are unconstitutional. The study found that 102 of the 119 highest-ranked universities and liberal arts colleges gave admissions preferences to children or grandchildren of alumni.

The authors of the report conclude that “these preferences reinforce the existing class stratification on the campuses of the nation’s elite schools because the beneficiaries of the preferences hail from the most affluent families in America.” Analysis of congressional intent in the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 show that legislators firmly espoused a belief in the “denial of a preeminence by birth.”

Steve D. Shadowen, an attorney for the Harrisburg law firm Hangley, Aronchick, Segal & Pudlin and lead author of the study, told JBHE, “Legacy preferences undermine student body diversity. The schools are therefore relegated to arguing that legacy preferences serve the ‘state interest’ of raising money from alumni.” But Shadowen’s findings show that the 102 schools that practice legacy admissions had no fundraising advantage over the 17 schools that did not. He says, “The schools that have recently terminated legacy preferences have not seen a reduction in donations.”

Shadowen suggests that litigation testing the legitimacy of legacy admissions should be brought against state universities in Florida, California, Washington, and Michigan, all of which have banned the consideration of race but continue to give an advantage to the children or grandchildren of legacies.

“These should be easy pickings,” Shadowen told JBHE.

JBHE agrees that legacy admissions are inconsistent with the system in which admissions to college are to be made on merit rather than pedigree. But we see no basis for the position that legacy admissions are unlawful in the sense of denying students “equal protection of the law.” Nor do legacy admissions violate any other protection of the U.S. Constitution.