During the University of Pennsylvania’s latest admissions cycle, the highly competitive university took a moment to appreciate its tradition of applicants hailing from alumni. It went on to say that these students will be thoroughly considered—but in no way different than other applicants, according to the university’s admissions page.
Penn’s previous wording regarding its legacy students was that they were “given the most consideration through Early Decision,” according to internet archives collected by The Daily Pennsylvanian. Penn has also quit its exclusive admissions information sessions for legacy families.
As subtle as the rewording seems, it marks a resounding change in philosophy in how Penn carries out its admissions process. It’s also the latest big-brand university to dig at the once-common practice of easing a cutthroat application process for legacy students. With Johns Hopkins recently joining rank and Harvard amid Supreme Court rulings, Penn’s decision might be the first sign of a massive shift.
Affirmative action and legacy students
While the Supreme Court is getting set to strike down affirmative action this summer in the name of equity, many progressive state leaders are beginning to point to legacy standards as another practice worth stomping out, too. Regarded as “affirmative action for the rich” by one former admissions officer, some argue that providing legacy students leniency in the application process perpetuates the disproportional acceptance of wealthy, white students.
Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s recent entanglement in a Supreme Court case regarding its race-conscious admissions process also led the former school to release data on its alumni. It found that despite Harvard’s 4% admissions rate, 30% of its accepted cohort is made of legacy students, according to Times Higher Education.
Consequently, what was a court case considering how providing preference to race can skew an admission process, the judges subsequently began to consider whether ending legacy admissions would also create a more equitable application process.
“Legacy preferences are very difficult to justify under any circumstances,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce, “but they will become even harder to justify if universities can’t use race in admissions.”