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S. 3559: Fair College Admissions for Students Act


Ken Griffey Jr. and Ken Griffey Sr. may have simultaneously played for the Seattle Mariners, but should kids get a leg up at getting into their parents’ college?

Context

Relatives of a college’s alumni, such as children or grandchildren, are nicknamed “legacies.” Those students are far more likely to be accepted at their predecessor’s alma mater, particularly at prestigious or elite colleges. For example, while the overall acceptance rate at Harvard is 5.9 percent, the legacy acceptance rate is 33.6 percent.

One of the resulting problems, critics say, is who exactly these legacies are. For most of their histories, America’s top universities didn’t accept those from certain demographics, such as black people or Jews. Even though those problems were rectified decades ago, the aftereffects linger on through legacy admissions. Going back to Harvard again, their legacy students are disproportionately white.

What the legislation does

The Fair College Admissions for Students Act would ban legacy considerations in the admissions for higher education institutions which participate in federal student aid programs. (Which many, if not most, ostensibly-private universities do.)

The House version was introduced on February 2 as H.R. 6559, by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY16). The Senate version was introduced the same day as S. 3559, by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that legacy admissions are unjust, unfair, and continue the theme of “the rich get richer.”

“Children of donors and alumni may be excellent students and well-qualified, but the last people who need extra help in the complicated and competitive college admissions process are those who start with the advantages of family education and money,” Sen. Merkley said in a press release. “Selecting applicants to universities based off of family names, connections, or the size of their bank accounts creates an unlevel playing field for students without those built-in advantages, especially impacting minority and first-generation students.”

“Students whose parents didn’t attend or donate to a university are often overlooked in the admissions process, due to the historically classist and racist legacy and donor admissions practices at many schools across the country,” Rep. Bowman said in a separate press release. “The legacy admissions practice… disproportionately benefits rich, white, and connected students… has antisemitic and anti-immigrant roots, [and] creates another systemic barrier to accessing higher education for low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that, as but one consideration in a multifaceted admissions process, legacies are a valuable tool.

Legacy admissions are “essential to Harvard’s well-being,” the university’s Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons said in a deposition for an affirmative action lawsuit. Bringing students who “have more experience with Harvard” alongside “others who are less familiar with Harvard” allows them to “exchange perspectives [and] points of view” in a way that would prepare them to become “more effective citizens and citizen leaders for society,” said Harvard’s Dean Rakesh Khurana.

Phrased another way: if you work in the admissions office at Harvard, where Barack Obama earned his law degree, are you actually going to reject Malia Obama? Or, when George Lucas donated $175 million to his alma mater USC, are you actually going to reject his kid or grandkid?

Odds of passage

The House version has attracted eight cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Education and Labor Committee.

The Senate version has attracted one Democratic cosponsor. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) Committee.

Last updated Feb 16, 2022. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Feb 2, 2022.


Fair College Admissions for Students Act

This bill prohibits an institution of higher education (IHE) that participates in federal student-aid programs from giving preferential treatment in the admissions process to applicants based on their relationships to donors or alumni of the IHE. The Department of Education may waive the prohibition against preferential treatment based on relationships to alumni for certain IHEs (e.g., historically Black colleges and universities or other minority-serving institutions) that demonstrate that the use of such preferential treatment is in the best interest of students who have been historically underrepresented in higher education.