The Fight to End Legacy Admissions Must Account for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Harvard Law School graduates take part in the Black Commencement at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on May 23, 2017. The ceremony is designed to celebrate Black students’ unique struggles and achievements at the institution. (Keith Bedford / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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On a hot spring day in Connecticut, we were shuttled into a small gymnasium dressed in pomp and circumstance. Though we were specks in the sea of white faces, I noticed that being a Black face in the crowd never bothered my grandfather; in fact, he embraced it. It was his opportunity to demonstrate his intellectual prowess. You see, my grandfather was proud to say he was a college graduate before affirmative action. 

When you are born in Sumter, S.C., to a mother with only a third-grade education, you tend to want to brag about overcoming your life challenges to enter spaces that were not designed for you to be a part of.

Now there are humble braggers, overt braggers, quiet braggers—yet, my grandfather was none of these. He was what I called an embarrassing bragger, where he would engage in what I deemed embarrassing acts, only to brag.

As we sat on the bleachers waiting for the graduation ceremony to begin, my grandfather became bored with waiting to see his first grandchild, my brother, walk across the stage for his bachelor’s degree. After analyzing the school’s alma mater song and finding great fault in it, he decided the crowd needed to hear his alma mater’s song. Without warning, using his bellowing voice, my grandfather broke out singing New York University’s (NYU) alma mater song.

In that moment, I was mortified.

Yet, over the years, my reflection on this memory evolved into appreciation of the lesson my grandfather taught me on that day: to embrace the power of legacy.

As our country comes to grips with the removal of affirmative action in the college admission process, schools are wondering what next steps should be taken to ensure an equitable and diverse learning environment for all students.

The uprooting of affirmative action has left an unequal scale in the world of admissions, which many believe should be addressed by removing legacy admissions entirely. However, my grandfather’s story and the stories of many others like him point to an essential reason why legacy admissions should continue—just with restrictions that center on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as on restoring access to economic, social and cultural disinvestment in underrepresented groups.

Evidence from an Ivy-plus college study by Harvard and Brown economics professors provided the data needed to support an already accepted social theory: White, high-income legacy applicants from non-religious private high schools have almost a 30 to 40 percent advantage of getting into Ivy League and “plus” (Duke University, Stanford University, Massachusetts of Technology, University of Chicago) universities over those who do not come from this background.

With this data, it is easy to agree that eliminating legacy admissions should be part of addressing inequality in admissions. The suggestion to correct the overt unequal balance by removing federal funding from universities that do not remove their alumni legacy admissions seems like a plausible solution to many, including current Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. Yet, this solution does not account for the historical inequality in the diversity of their alumni base.

Only about 28 percent of Black Americans hold an associate’s degree or higher. This number dwindles when looking at those who have achieved professional and graduate-level degrees.

Knowing this, can we even say that, within the alumni bases of these institutions, equality and diversity have been reached? How do you quantify the legacy admissions benefit of a first-generation Black alumnae from that of a seventh-generation white alumnae? 

Colleges and universities have graduated many first-generation, underrepresented, minority students who will go on to reverse the economic, societal and cultural disinvestment their families and communities experienced throughout generations in American society. This revolutionary change will be hindered by removing legacy admissions without regard for the impact that legacy alumni admissions have on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

My grandfather’s story does not have more meaning because he graduated from a predominately white institution (PWI) before the implementation of affirmative action. His story has meaning because he would go on to spend the rest of his life emphasizing to his family and community—as he served as a historian, preacher and thought leader—that being a Black, educated and well-informed individual is key to aiding us in the struggle to reverse societal ills, supporting Black-centered businesses, colleges and universities, and embracing the diverse, but often hidden, aspects of Black culture. 

Being a minority college alumnae means more than just representing the university you graduate from; it comes with the charge of shifting and changing the narrative society places on those from underrepresented backgrounds. 

In April 2020, my grandfather passed from COVID-19 pneumonia, like many others in the five boroughs of New York.  Without being prompted, we made sure to inform the Alumni Association of NYU. It was a decision that we as a family knew was important not only to his life story but also to the legacy he left behind for us to follow.

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Faith Crittenden, MD, MPH, is a pediatric resident at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital in New Haven, Conn. She is also a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project and the National Black Child Developmental Institute.