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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Education reformers in Connecticut push for end to legacy admissions while college administrators push back

    A proposed bill in the state legislature would prohibit public and independent institutions of higher education from giving preference in admissions "on the basis of the applicant's familial relationship to a person who has graduated from such institution," a practice known as legacy admissions.

    The Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee on Friday heard support from education reformers and opposition from college administrators, including Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron. The committee had raised the bill, House Bill 5034.

    Amy Dowell, state director of the nonprofit think tank Education Reform Now, said in written testimony that legacy preference "is discriminatory and perpetuates racial and socio-economic inequities. It creates a structural disadvantage that harms those who, historically, have not been privileged with family connections to the institutions of higher education in our state."

    She noted that defenders of the practice say it's helpful for fundraising, but pointed to research showing there's not statistically significant evidence that legacy admissions policies impact alumni donations.

    Last year, Colorado banned legacy preferences in admissions at public colleges and universities. Some institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University, have ended legacy admissions on their own.

    In opposing the bill, Bergeron wrote that she has "grave concerns" about how the legislation would be enforced, given the complexity of Connecticut College's admissions process. She said only 147 of the 8,900 applications for the Class of 2026 have a legacy connection, and with such a small number, it would be "nearly impossible" to demonstrate whether any of these students received preferential treatment.

    She also noted that children of alumni from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds are starting to apply, and it "would be a cruel irony" if legacy admissions were prohibited just when alumni families of color might start to benefit.

    "We do not believe it appropriate for the state legislature to make policy around the admission practices of independent colleges," Bergeron said.

    Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of admissions at Yale University, shared the same sentiment and said such a law "would open the door to other intrusions on academic freedom." He and Bergeron both said the Connecticut General Assembly could instead provide more funding for need-based aid.

    Administrators at various colleges also talked about increasing their investments in financial aid, and about efforts to recruit and retain low-income and first-generation students.

    "Many of the colleges are presenting the issue as an 'either/or' situation, between increasing support and financial resources to low income students or eliminating legacy preferences," wrote Viet Nguyen of EdMobilizer, a coalition to make higher education more equitable.

    Yale junior Logan Roberts — who said he is the child of a mailman and a hairdresser, and is "tremendously grateful to study at a place like Yale" — told the committee he hasn't seen any "substantive justification for why this discriminatory practice should continue." He said legacy preference "only serves to give a leg up to students who already have a substantial leg up in the admissions process."

    Corry Unis, vice president for strategic enrollment at Fairfield University, said legacy status doesn't factor into the majority of admissions decisions, but that "at times, legacy could play a role in helping us predict a student's academic success."

    Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, said he doesn't think the legislature should be micromanaging private institutions unless they're doing something egregious, and he doesn't see that at Fairfield.

    Nathan Fuerst, vice president for enrollment planning and management at the University of Connecticut, said UConn doesn't consider legacy status in admissions decisions but voiced concern that this bill would make it difficult to avoid a "slippery slope" of further restrictions on admissions.

    Terrence Cheng, president of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, said all four state universities confirm they no longer use this preference. He said he applauds the intent but the legislation doesn't appear to have a direct impact on any CSCU institutions.

    Richard Sugarman, president of the scholarship program Hartford Promise, wrote in strong support of the bill and commented, "We are supposed to be a meritocracy. Those with the demonstrated merit and hard work get rewarded because of their merit and hard work. Legacy is completely meritless! Colleges lose in this system because they get students who don't deserve and, in many cases, don't want to be there."

    e.moser@theday.com

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