Virginia Democrats Demand an Urgent End to Legacy Admissions

Democratic lawmakers are aiming to prohibit the special treatment given to student applicants related to alumni and donors by Virginia public colleges and universities.

The move to ban legacy admissions comes after the Supreme Court declared last June that race-conscious admission policies at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina were unconstitutional. In response, schools in Virginia have already begun changing their admissions policies, which have historically favored white students from higher-income families.

Although the court’s ruling did not require colleges to take action, Democrats are pushing for legislation to ban legacy admissions as a way to further refine the admissions process and support future college applicants. The bills are set to be considered during the upcoming General Assembly session.

Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Richmond, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, explained his motivation, saying, “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.”

Del. Dan Helmer, D-Clifton, who is carrying the House bill, argued that far right groups mistakenly focus on race as the main factor in college admissions. He believes that the real issue lies in admission decisions influenced by alumni status and donations.

Speaking about the proposed legislation, Helmer stated, “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.”

According to Education Reform Now, a nonprofit organization, more than 100 colleges and universities have already discontinued the use of legacy admission preferences since 2015. However, as of 2020, 787 institutions still employ this practice.

At the State Level

The extent to which institutions in Virginia utilize legacy admissions is unclear. Legacy admissions are typically more prevalent in the nation’s most prestigious schools, such as Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia.

In response to the Supreme Court ruling, Virginia Tech promptly announced that it would no longer consider legacy as a factor in their admissions process.

The University of Virginia also made changes to its admissions process by no longer asking applicants to identify themselves as relatives of alumni. Instead, applicants have the option to complete an essay question about their personal or historical connection with the university.

Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, who is sponsoring similar legislation to VanValkenburg and Helmer’s, emphasized the need for action from lawmakers. He said, “There shouldn’t be other outside influential factors that guide admissions. 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 believe that legacy admissions should not be a factor in college admissions decisions. The percentage increased from 68% in 2019 to 75% in 2022.

Attorney General Jason Miyares wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch last August, “Colleges should consider individuals’ life experiences when reviewing their applications, including their socioeconomic status or how poverty has impacted their educational journey. 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.”

At the Federal Level

Congressional lawmakers are also taking action to ban the practice of giving special treatment to student applicants with connections to alumni and donors.

In November, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, co-sponsored the Merit-Based Educational Reforms and Institutional Transparency Act (MERIT Act) in Congress. The legislation aims to add a new standard for accreditation to the Higher Education Act in order to prevent accredited colleges and universities from providing 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.

Kaine explained, “A student’s acceptance into a college should not hinge on whether their parents attended that school or donated a large sum of money. 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 institutions can still consider a student’s genuine interest in the school as part of the admissions process, regardless of whether they have a legacy connection or not.

Kaine’s office noted that many institutions currently consider alumni affiliation when assessing an applicant’s demonstrated interest in attending the school. The bill aims to limit the use of demonstrated interest as a loophole for alumni preference while still allowing institutions to consider it.

The bill also ensures that religious institutions can continue making admissions decisions in line with their faith-based values and includes a requirement for a comprehensive feasibility study on the influence of legacy and donor relationships on admissions decisions. The legislation does not specify which institutions would be subject to the study.

VanValkenburg expressed his support for Kaine’s efforts at the federal level but emphasized the importance of taking action within Virginia. He stated, “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.”

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