Reif: New Congressional bill targets college legacy admissions

Richard Reif, Op-Ed Contributor

The debate over legacy admissions now raging at Northwestern and other campuses has reached Congress. A bill introduced by U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) would ban all U.S. colleges and universities participating in federal student aid programs from admitting students based on family ties. 

“Selecting applicants to universities based off of family names, connections and the size of their bank accounts creates an unlevel playing field” for minority, first generation and low income students,” Merkley said. Legacy admissions began in the 1920s when the U.S. absorbed a huge influx of immigrants, Bowman noted. “It has antisemitic and anti-immigrant roots … creating another systemic barrier to accessing higher education,” Bowman stated.

If this bill becomes law, it could impact NU, where recipients of the Pell Grant — a federal need-based grant for low-income students in higher education — comprise at least 20% of the undergraduate student population under a diversity goal set by NU, according to University President Morton Schapiro. NU also receives large federal research grants, including $488.6 million from the National Institutes of Health last year.

Will NU and other impacted schools lobby against this bill, individually or collectively? If they do, I hope they lose, because they are in a misguided minority. More than half of the top U.S. colleges and universities don’t consider legacy status as an admission factor. Many leading schools have dropped it over the past two years, including Johns Hopkins University, Amherst College, California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But some elite institutions still take legacy status into consideration. They include Stanford University, where 16.2% of the class of 2023 are legacy admissions, and Harvard University, where 14% of undergraduates are legacy admissions and 70% of legacy applicants are white. That startling statistic was revealed during a class action lawsuit filed by Students For Fair Admissions, which accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian students. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear their case.

What ratio of NU’s student population does legacy admission account for? NU has not released hard figures, but in an interview with the Daily, Schapiro estimated that about 10% of NU’s undergraduates benefited in some way from legacy admissions. “No admission decision will ever be solely made based on legacy status,” Schapiro said at the time. But legacy status could be used as a “tie-breaking” factor if competing applicants are otherwise equally qualified, he said.

Schapiro said NU has increased diversity via the Pell Grant program, plus vigorous recruiting of minority, low income and first generation students. “Wouldn’t it be ironic … now that we have a substantially more diverse student body, if the kids of those graduates all of a sudden didn’t get the legacy advantage that the rest of the people in their dorms did when they were there.” 

No, it wouldn’t be ironic. It would be fair and equitable. I was a first generation student at the City University of New York (B.A. ’62) where legacy is not an admission factor, and at NU (Medill MSJ ’64), where it is. I benefited from both schools. My Medill education and experience opened the door to a 35-year career as a staff writer and editor at McGraw Hill, a major publishing firm. No student today should be denied a similar opportunity because no one in their family graduated from NU or donated money to it. Legacy admissions are a relic of a painful past. It’s time to totally abolish them.

Richard Reif is a Medill alum. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.