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• There is evidence that legacy students do get a significant benefit in the elite college admissions process. But the data is not comprehensive. Detailed data from a recent lawsuit looked only at Harvard University.
• There are complications in the data. For example, some admits are both minorities and legacies. It’s also hard to say what share of white legacy admits and Black and Latino admits received preferences from their legacy status or from affirmative action, respectively.
U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat who represents New York's 16th District, recently tweeted a comment about admissions equity at selective universities, an issue he’s currently seeking to address with legislation.
"More white legacy students get admitted to top universities than Black & Latinx students admitted through affirmative action" Bowman tweeted on Jan. 26.
Bowman has introduced a bill with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to overhaul legacy and donor admissions practices at universities. The Fair College Admissions for Students Act would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to prevent colleges and universities that participate in federal student aid programs from offering admissions preferences to children of alumni or donors.
While Bowman has a point that white students do benefit significantly from legacy admissions, his tweet includes some imprecise phrasing and oversimplifies some recent research.
When we asked Patsy Montesinos, a spokesperson for Bowman, for the evidence to support the tweet, she said it was based on an opinion article by Deborah Archer, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, published in Bloomberg Law, and a 2019 study, "Legacy and Athlete Preferences at Harvard," by three academics for the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Here, we will focus on the academic paper since it was the only one that offered new, specific data. When we reached out to the co-authors of the academic paper, one of them, Tyler Ransom, a University of Oklahoma economist, took issue with how Bowman’s tweet was worded.
The paper is based on data that emerged from a lawsuit against Harvard University over alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants. As part of the lawsuit, Harvard provided unusual access to data underlying admissions decisions for specific types of applicants, including recruited athletes, legacy students (that is, those who are children of alumni), the children of faculty and staff, and the children of major donors. The paper analyzed this data.
For starters, the paper studied admissions patterns at Harvard — not at all "top universities."
Ransom also took issue with Bowman’s phrasing, which could be read to suggest that white legacy admissions exceed the combination of Black and Latino affirmative action admissions.
In reality, the paper’s analysis estimated that, collectively, the number of Blacks and Latino admitted as a result of affirmative action was higher than the number of white legacy admissions. Only when the number of Black affirmative action admits was compared individually to the number of white legacy admits, or when the number of Latino affirmative action admits was compared individually to the number of white legacy admits, did the number of legacy admits exceed the number of affirmative action admits.
Bowman’s office also shared a memorandum that criticized legacy preferences. The memorandum, written by the advocacy group Education Reform Now, cited data from Princeton University’s admission statistics from 2021. The data listed indicate that legacy students made up 13% of admits, Blacks made up 8%, and Latinos made up 11%.
This shows the same pattern: Collectively, Black and Hispanic admits exceeded the number of legacy admits, even though individually, each group’s admission numbers were outpaced by legacy students.
When looking at this data, It’s worth noting a few factors that complicate the conclusions that can be drawn. First, Black and Hispanic admits from the Princeton data may also be legacy admits. Second, it’s impossible to know whether some of the white legacy admits would have been admitted even without their legacy status. And third, not all of the Black and Latino Princeton admits would have been the beneficiary of affirmative action.
When we presented our reporting to Bowman's office, Alex Foley, a legislative aide, acknowledged that drawing conclusions about the data can be difficult. However, he added that "many top universities do enroll more legacy students" than they do Black or Latino students.
Bowman said, "More white legacy students get admitted to top universities than Black & Latinx students admitted through affirmative action."
There is evidence that legacy students do get an unusually large benefit in the elite college admissions process but the data is quite limited. And, recent data suggests some complications in drawing comparisons between the admission rates of various groups.
These complications include the reality that some admits are both minorities and legacies. It's also hard to say what share of white legacy admits and Black and Latino admits received preferences from their legacy status or from affirmative action, respectively.
We rate the statement Half True.
Jamaal Bowman,tweet, Jan. 26, 2022
Press Release, "News: Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Sen. Jeff Merkley Introduce Legacy Admissions Reform Bill," Feb. 2, 2022
Inside Higher Ed, "Bill Would Deny Aid to Colleges With Legacy Admissions," Scott Jaschik, Feb. 7, 2022
Bloomberg Law, "Race-Conscious Admissions Policies Are Crucial to an Equitable Society," Deborah Archer, Feb. 1, 2022
National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper Series, "Legacy and Athlete Preferences at Harvard," Sept. 2019
Memorandum, "Elite college admissions," Michael Dannenberg with Education Reform Now, April 3, 2019
American Council on Education, "Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard University," May 21, 2020
Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College et al, Exhibit B "Rebuttal Expert Report of Peter S. Arcidiacono," Nov. 17, 2014
Los Angeles Times,"Op-Ed: The real affirmative action dominating admission to elite colleges benefits privileged white kids,"Katherine Hu, Aug. 27, 2020
Email interview with Patsy Montesinos, spokesperson for Jamaal Bowman, Feb. 10, 2022
Email interview with Alex Foley, Legislative Aide to Bowman, Feb. 23, 2022
Interview with Tyler Ransom, Feb. 16,2022
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