By Michael Dannenberg & James Murphy
Spurred by the work of Education Reform Now, a group of New York State legislators is proposing to push public and private colleges to end the legacy preference and binding early admission policies that disproportionately harm racial minority, working class, low-income, and first generation students.
Below is our summary of the legislation, background information, common questions, and our answers.
The Fair College Admissions Act
Introduced by New York State Senator Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn) & New York State Assemblywoman Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn)
Summary in Brief
- The Fair College Admissions Act discourages four-year colleges in New York State from providing a legacy preference to applicants related to alumni and administering early decision admissions plans that require applicants to commit to enroll in a specific college without the opportunity to compare financial aid offers from other schools. A large body of research indicates these two practices disproportionately disadvantage low- and middle-income students, immigrants, students who will be the first in their family to attend college, and members of historically underrepresented racial minority groups.
- Colleges that currently implement a legacy preference and binding early admission program that choose to continue to do so will be required to contribute funds to the New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) equal in amount to 10 percent of annual undergraduate tuition and fee levels. Should all relevant New York State colleges at issue choose to continue to make use of the legacy preference and binding early admission, it is estimated the New York State TAP financial aid program for students from low-income families will be increased by as much as $200 million a year (a 20% increase).
- The reforms called for in the Fair College Admissions Act are supported by ACCEPT, CUNY Rising Alliance, DFER-NY, Ed Mobilizer, Education Reform Now, New America, Our Turn Student Network, Prospanica NY, The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), and other education groups. One other state, Colorado, has passed a legacy preference ban. Pending federal legislation sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) would do much the same.
There are significant disparities in higher education opportunity and attainment in New York State. According to United States Census data, just 38 percent of New York State residents over the age of 24 have a bachelor’s degree. Within this age group, 75 percent of New Yorkers who identify as Black and 79 percent who identify as Latino/Hispanic do not possess a bachelor’s degree. The financial implications are significant. Median income of those with only a high school diploma is but 53 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Further, they are three times more likely to live in poverty than those with a bachelor’s degree. Increasing access to high quality higher education for all New Yorkers is vital to increasing social mobility, creating a 21st-century workforce, and strengthening the economy.
Unfair admissions policies and practices such as the legacy preference and early decision are not the only source of inequity in college degree attainment in New York, but they are a significant reason for disparities suffered by students from historically underserved racial and economic subgroups as compared to their more advantaged peers.
Currently, a large number of private and a few public four-year colleges and universities in New York State consider whether a prospective student is related to alumni as part of the admissions process, a policy commonly known as the legacy preference. Beneficiaries are overwhelmingly white and almost never poor. Nationally, the preference is estimated to be worth a 160 point boost to an applicant’s SAT score. Accordingly, research indicates legacy students are accepted at a much higher rate than equally qualified applicants. Further, highly selective colleges fill anywhere from 10% to 25% of their class with legacy students – a percentage that typically exceeds the percentage of Black students enrolled as well as the percentage of Latino/Hispanic students enrolled, sometimes both combined.
Similar inequities that undermine diversity on campus are seen in the binding early admissions process. In 2017, 30% of four-year colleges in New York State employed an early decision admission policy that allows students to apply in the fall of their senior year and receive an application decision by December in exchange for committing to attend that institution and foregoing an opportunity to compare financial aid packages offered by competing institutions of higher education. Applying early decision is estimated to be worth a 100 point boost to an applicant’s SAT score. Again and accordingly, early decision applicants are admitted at much higher rates than other applicants. At a number of New York colleges between 40 and 60 percent of enrolled students are admitted early decision. This “shadow admissions system” favors students with strong college advising, in-the-know parents, and with families with the ability to commit to a college or university without considering the size of a financial aid package.
Some 303,649 students received TAP aid in 2019-20. The average grant was $3,310. Although the New York legislature made a historic investment in TAP in 2021 and increased the maximum TAP grant by $500, a “TAP Gap” – that is the difference between the cost of tuition and how much students get through the program – still exists. The maximum TAP grant is $5,665, while average tuition and fees for full-time students are $7,330 at CUNY schools and the average tuition and fees are $8,810 at SUNY schools. An independent estimate of the Fair College Admissions Act indicates TAP funding could increase by as much as 20% annually should no relevant college alter underlying admissions practices like the legacy preference and binding early admission that undermine diversity in enrollment.
- Prohibits colleges that receive revenue from New York State or are an eligible recipient of New York State tax-preferred savings or other benefits from: (i) considering alumni/ae relation as a factor in admissions or otherwise provide a legacy preference to applicants, and (ii) offering an early decision admission policy for undergraduate admissions.
- Colleges are still permitted to employ a non-binding early action plan, which allows students to apply early and receive an admissions decision in December, but does not require them to enroll if admitted.
- Violation of this statute will result in a penalty equivalent to ten percent of the number of full-time equivalent freshmen enrolled the year previous to the violation multiplied by the institution’s published tuition and fees.
- The penalties collected are to be provided to New York state’s Tuition Assistance Program, which provides need-based financial aid to New York residents.
List of Supporters
CUNY Rising Alliance
Democrats for Education Reform – New York
Education Reform Now
Prospanica – NY
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What’s the harm in giving legacies a small tip in the admissions process?
The legacy preference is not a small tip. One study estimated the boost it gives to applicants as equivalent to 160 extra points on the SAT. A well-regarded Harvard study of highly selective universities showed that legacies enjoy a 45 percentage point advantage in their admit rates when compared to equally qualified applicants. These benefits go overwhelmingly to wealthy, white applicants who, thanks to the long history of discrimination against people of color and individuals from low-income households, are much more likely to be legacies.
Nationally, typically between 10% and 25% of enrolled students at highly selective colleges are legacy preference beneficiaries. Among colleges in New York State, at Cornell University legacies make up 15 percent of the Class of 2024 whereas Black students make up only 8 percent of those enrolled. Colgate University, too, enrolls more legacies than Black students. At Fordham University, legacy applicants are a third more likely to be admitted than other applicants.
Q: Isn’t the ban on early decision taking away a choice from students who want to apply early?
No. The Fair College Admissions Act allows colleges to employ an “early action” plan, whereby applicants submit an application in the fall and receive an admissions decision in December but are not required to commit to enroll at that point if admitted. There is little problem with the early action choice being available. There is a large problem with the early decision option, which is effectively only available to those with financial means.
Early decision admission policies favor students with strong college advising and the ability to commit to a college or university without considering a financial aid package. It puts first-generation students, students at under-resourced high schools, and students from working class and low-income backgrounds at a substantial disadvantage, because they are more likely to lack awareness of the strategic benefit of applying early and do not have the luxury of committing to an institution without knowing the after financial aid cost of attendance. First-generation students are two-thirds as likely as their more advantaged peers to apply early decision, according to Common Application data. Black students are half as likely.
As with the legacy preference, applying early decision provides a significant boost to applicants, worth an extra 100 points on the SAT according to a study by Harvard University’s Chris Avery. Hence, at most colleges, early decision applicants are much more likely to be admitted than regular decision ones. In 2017, early decision applicants’ odds of admissions were more than twice those of regular decision applicants at Marist College, Skidmore College, Cornell University, and Barnard University. At Columbia University, their odds were 3.5 times greater.
Currently, 30 percent of the bachelor degree granting institutions of higher education in New York State employ an early decision admission policy. Many of them, particularly highly selective institutions with low admit rates, enroll between 40 and 7 0 percent of their freshmen class through early decision. In 2020, for example, 62 percent of Colgate’s freshman class was enrolled through early decision. In 2019, 67 percent of NYU’s freshman class was enrolled through early decision. Between the legacy preference and early decision policies, it should be no wonder so many academically talented, working class and low-income students effectively are shut out of attending New York State’s best colleges.
Q: What does this bill do to address affordability?
The bill addresses affordability in two ways. First, it increases access to highly selective colleges, which often commit to meeting an accepted applicant’s full financial need and are thus among the most affordable options in the nation. Second, the penalty imposed on colleges that violate the prohibition on the legacy and early decision could raise tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars for the TAP Program, increasing the average annual grant per full-time equivalent student by as much as $776 to $4,086 or make almost 35,000 additional students eligible for a full grant, if the maximum amount of penalty funds (approximately $197 million, based on 2020 enrollment and tuition data) is raised.
CUNY’s two and four-year institutions could receive an additional $63 million in revenue due to contributions to TAP as per the Fair College Admissions Act. SUNY’s two- and four year institutions could receive an additional $77 million in TAP revenue.
Q: Doesn’t the legacy ban hurt racial minorities who finally after generations are enrolled at many of these schools and will be able to pass on the benefit to their children?
The number of legacies who are people of color likely has gone up marginally in the past decade or so, but small improvements will take generations to catch up to white students. Even more important, there are vastly more racial minority students who are not related to alumni and are therefore disadvantaged (i.e. harmed) by the legacy preference.
If any racial group deserves a second preference in addition to that associated with race-based affirmative action, it’s low-income racial minorities as opposed to those who are legacies. Giving anyone an advantage based solely on the accomplishment of their parents flies in the face of equity.
Q: Won’t this undermine donations? Doesn’t it infringe on academic freedom? What about colleges that can’t pay the penalty?
First, civil rights shouldn’t be for sale, and this is a civil rights issue. Civil rights are more important than concerns about fundraising or red herrings like government intrusion. And academic freedom is about what goes on in the classroom and research outside it; it’s not about fair access to an institution.
Moreover, let’s remember that many of the colleges implicated have quite a bit of wealth. Every week last year, Columbia University’s endowment grew by over $50 million. Plus colleges don’t have to pay any penalty. They can choose to end unfair admissions practices like the legacy preference and binding early admission that fail to reward achievement, undermine diversity, and are just plain un-American.
Q: Are you going to hold legacy status against applicants? How will you enforce the ban on legacy admissions?
A ban on legacy admissions does not mean colleges will no longer enroll or be prohibited from enrolling the relatives of alumni. Johns Hopkins University removed the legacy preference from its admissions process, but its Class of 2024 was still about 4 percent children of alumni. Notably after eliminating the legacy preference, Johns Hopkins Pell Grant student, Black, and Latino/Hispanic enrollment rates all increased markedly.
The bill prohibits institutions from asking applicants where their parents went to college, although they can collect that data for applicants if and after the applicant submits a deposit indicating their intention to enroll. Some 103 private New York colleges use the Common Application system, which asks applicants whether and where their parents attended college, but admissions offices can opt in advance not to see those responses in the data they receive from the Common Application.
Q: What gives the state the authority to prohibit admissions practices, particularly at private colleges?
All public and private colleges in the United States that receive federal Title IV financial aid funding are subject to regulations and obligations as a condition of receipt, including state licensure. New York State provides its own direct funding to Title IV colleges and state tax breaks and state financial aid revenue to private colleges. Twenty percent of TAP recipients attend private colleges and universities.
Q: How much will this bill cost?
A: There is zero cost to taxpayers associated with the Fair College Admissions Act.
 Note: The legislation does not prohibit colleges and universities from implementing non-binding “early action” admissions policies that allow students to apply early but do not prohibit them from pursuing admission to other institutions at the same time or subsequent to an admissions offer.
 Based on an analysis of American Community Survey data for 2020.
 Jennifer Ma, Matea Pender, and Meredith Welch, Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society, The College Board (2019).
 Based on an analysis of Common Data Set reports, 2017.
 Based on an analysis of Common Data Set reports.
 Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung, “The Opportunity Cost of Admission Preferences at Elite Universities,” Social Science Quarterly (June 2005).
 Michael Hurwitz, “The Impact of Legacy Status on Undergraduate Admissions at Elite Colleges and Universities,” Economics of Education Review (2011).
 Cornell University’s student government has called on the administration to end the legacy preference practice. See Claire Tempelman, “It’s 2022. Why do we Still Practice Legacy Admissions?,” Cornell Daily Sun (Mar 2022)
 Based on analysis of Colgate’s Common Data Set 2020-21.
 Based on analysis of NYU’s Common Data Set 2019-20.