By Biena Depeña
As a first-generation college student and the first in my family to obtain a college degree and graduate degree, I had no idea how competitive the college process would actually be. As an immigrant, I was even more clueless about the behind-the-scenes deals many affluent parents orchestrate to ensure their privileged children receive access to the best college education possible—regardless of whether that same child has earned access based on any academic merit.
Upon learning these truths, however, I also learned something even more sinister: the higher education system in this country pits minority and low-income groups against each other by effectively limiting their enrollment space in top-tier schools, which determines access to opportunities, and ultimately, the shape of students’ futures. The most egregious way they do this is through the legacy preference—a practice steeped in long-entrenched discrimination and racial bias, and one long overdue for obsoletion.
Most highly selective colleges and universities award a legacy preference in admissions to prospective students who claim a family member among that institution’s alumni—a disproportionately white and wealthy group. This unearned “boost” in admissions is equal to roughly 160 additional points on the SAT, and between 10% and 25% of all enrollment slots of elite colleges go to those who have benefited from this preference. At the top ten universities, there have been more white students who have benefited from an “alumni preference” than Black or Latinx students admitted after having benefited from affirmative action policies.
It’s not as if elite colleges need to make use of the legacy preference. It is used mostly by colleges already teeming with endowment wealth—places like Fordham, which has an endowment worth over $800 million.
Through the legacy preference, universities lock in a societal status quo. They gate keep exactly who is allowed into college classrooms, and from there, who is allowed into future boardrooms, lucrative workplaces, stations of decision making, etc. — all spaces traditionally lacking minorities.
White students, particularly those from wealthy backgrounds, have already benefited from generational privilege. They do not further need their parents to pave the way for more special treatment when it comes to college admissions. They do not need a shorter basepath to home plate, when they were already born on third base. Too many minority students are still sitting on the bench, just hoping for the chance to play.
Organizations like Education Reform Now correctly argue that it is the job, the responsibility, of political leaders—those with the authority to regulate colleges’ decisions—to enact a legacy preferences ban. To that point, I heartily applaud the recent efforts of New York State Senator Andrew Gounardes and Assemblywoman Latrice Walker— who introduced the Fair College Admissions Act, which is aimed at banning the legacy preference and binding early college admission policies in the state.
But the work doesn’t stop there.
The New York City Council can and should pick up the momentum started at the state level by passing a resolution within its own boundaries to call on the city’s colleges to end the legacy preference, or better yet, attaching an “equity rider” to municipal contracts with colleges, insisting a legacy preferences ban be in place in order to do business with the City.
New York has always been a national leader both in creating change for the better and in welcoming immigrants from around the world. Let us also be a leader in ensuring the immigrants we welcome have equitable access to opportunity.
I urge our leaders to take a stand against the legacy preference and the continuation of an unjust and discriminatory policy in higher education that has kept the doors closed to millions of American students—like me—so that we may access the American dream.
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Biena Depeña, is a 2020 Alum of the Leaders of Color New York program, the Community Impact Project Director managing diversity state funded projects for United Way of Long Island. She immigrated from the Dominican Republic at age 14 and grew up in the Town of Hempstead, NY.