- A pending bill in the Massachusetts Legislature seeks to eliminate legacy admissions and early decision programs at all colleges in the commonwealth.
- Colleges maintaining such practices would pay a fee based on institutional wealth.
- These fees would establish a fund benefiting students at Massachusetts community colleges.
- Legacy admissions faced criticism before the Supreme Court banned affirmative action, and scrutiny has intensified since that ruling.
More than a dozen Massachusetts legislators want to eliminate legacy admissions, donor preferences, and early decision programs. Colleges continuing these practices would pay a penalty, creating a fund to support community colleges in the commonwealth.
Co-filed by state Rep. Simon Cataldo and state Sen. Pavel Payano, both Democrats, the bill seeks to “advance fairness, integrity, and excellence in higher education admissions.”
Vague at times, it leaves several key questions unanswered, but the spirit of the bill aligns with growing sentiments around preferential admissions policies.
Levying a ‘Public Service Fee’ on Colleges Violating Sanctions
House Bill No. 3760, introduced earlier this year and still pending, would require Massachusetts colleges, both public and private, to disclose information about their admissions practices and outcomes, levying a “public service fee” on colleges violating the sanctions.
“These practices are unfair, and they prevent working-class, hardworking students from being able to have access to these types of opportunities that are life-changing not for themselves, but for their entire family,” Payano told The Harvard Crimson.
The public service fees would vary according to an institution’s wealth. At the low end, colleges with an endowment per student of less than $50,000 would pay a fee equal to 0.01% of their endowment. At the high end, those with an endowment per student exceeding $2 million would pay 0.2%.
With its per-student endowment of more than $2 million, Harvard would qualify for the 0.2% tax, which the Crimson estimates would cost the university $100 million annually.
Amherst and Williams colleges both have per-student endowments of roughly $1.6 million and would face a 0.15% tax.
Funds generated through these fees would establish a war chest to support Massachusetts community colleges. What those funds would actually do remains unclear. The bill notes the Higher Education Opportunity Trust Fund would be created “for the purposes of supporting certificate and degree attainment at select public community colleges.”
Given Cataldo’s comments to the Crimson, though, one might assume the money would underwrite scholarships.
“If the bill goes into place, we think it creates about 25,000 slots of free community college,” Cataldo said. “If the schools decide to continue using these pernicious practices, that public service fee that goes into place would create opportunity for the very students that the schools are systematically keeping out of their campuses.”
Vague Language Introduces Ambiguity
Other aspects of the bill remain ambiguous as well. First, it initially differentiates between early decision and early action (the latter being nonbinding), yet the bill’s subsequent language seems to imply only universities offering early decision would face sanctions, unless “early decision” is shorthand for both.
Second, the language calls for universities to separately disaggregate minority and low-income students when reporting statistics on legacy and early admissions, but it doesn’t say why.
And third, there’s no sense of how lawmakers would enforce such a law other than relying on transparency among reporting institutions. Having an early decision program (Harvard uses early action) or not is a simple binary matter. But how can anyone prove that an admission decision for a legacy applicant hinged solely on that individual’s legacy status? In a holistic process, legacy status is one attribute among many and may not necessarily be the deciding factor.
Would colleges instead be penalized for admitting any legacy applicants? Or would they somehow have to keep that status hidden, similar to how the Common App removed the racial checkbox in advance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban on race-conscious admissions? Remaining truly blind to legacy status — and to race — could prove impossible given all the nuances reflected in a college application.
Growing Trend to Ban Preferential Admissions Practices
Even before the SCOTUS ruling, legacy admissions had faced growing criticism. Now that race-based considerations have been deemed illegal, any admissions practices that disfavor racial minorities have attracted even greater scrutiny.
Shortly after the SCOTUS decision, three groups — the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network — filed a federal civil rights complaint against Harvard challenging its “discriminatory practice of giving preferential treatment in the admissions process to applicants with familial ties to wealthy donors and alumni (‘legacy applicants’).”
The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights by Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), alleges the practice violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to the complaint, almost 70% of Harvard’s donor and legacy applicants are white. Compared to other applicants, children of donors are nearly seven times more likely to be admitted, while legacies are nearly six times more likely.
For the classes of 2014-2019, Harvard legacies were admitted at a rate of 33.6%, compared to 5.9% for non-legacies. About 28% of Harvard’s class of 2019 were legacies.
More broadly, across the so-called “Ivy Plus” colleges — the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Chicago — legacies are admitted at higher rates than non-legacies with similar standardized test scores, an advantage that increases with family wealth.
A recent report from Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based research group, revealed that alumni children from families in the 90th income percentile are four times more likely to be admitted, while those in the 99th percentile are eight times more likely to gain admission.
At the state level, Colorado banned legacy admissions in 2021, and legislation aimed at both public and private colleges was subsequently introduced in New York. Connecticut considered a similar bill.
Meanwhile, the University of California system, the University of Georgia, and Texas A&M University have all long since abandoned the practice, and the University of Minnesota announced a similar intent following the SCOTUS decision.
Among private institutions, Amherst College announced two years ago that it would no longer favor legacies, who, at the time, accounted for about 11% of each entering class. Amherst’s decision echoed a similar move by Johns Hopkins University, which jettisoned legacy admissions in 2014.
More recently, Wesleyan University joined the fray, leaving behind a tradition that represented “a sign of unfairness to the outside world,” its president, Michael Roth, told The New York Times.
And last August, Carleton College announced that it, too, had discontinued the practice.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts bill remains pending and is “still very much alive,” Thomas Mahoney, Payano’s chief of staff, told The Williams Record, the student newspaper at Williams College.
This effort bears watching because it doesn’t necessarily make legacy admissions and early decision programs illegal but rather disincentivizes such practices by levying a punitive fee. In the process, it would produce the Robin Hood effect of taxing several wealthy institutions to the benefit of students typically on the opposite end of the privilege continuum. Perhaps this legislation could serve as a blueprint for other states considering similar measures.
Of course, considering the extreme example that the bill causes all Massachusetts colleges to eliminate these admissions policies, no fees would be collected, and no additional funds would flow into community colleges.
Even without legislative interventions, colleges nationwide are finding it increasingly difficult to justify any admissions policies that disadvantage racial minorities. Before the affirmative action ban, such practices made universities appear somewhat hypocritical given their rhetoric around diversity and access. Now they’re downright indefensible.