Last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard separate oral arguments for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University cases challenging the institutions' race-conscious admissions practices. In addition to a focus on preference based on race, the court's discussions also focused much attention on the topic of preference based on alumni status, reported Inside Higher Ed. While justices will not issue a final decision in the case until next year, a majority of the court appeared likely in favor of banning or limit race-conscious admissions policy while letting preference for alumni status stand. However, some believe this to be a moot point, as colleges may feel pressured to abandon legacy admissions because of scrutiny that the practice may be inherently tied up with racial preferences.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson expressed skepticism during the oral arguments, offering the following example about two hypothetical applicants to UNC:
The first applicant says, 'I'm from North Carolina. My family has been in this area for generations, since before the Civil War, and I would like you to know that I will be the fifth generation to graduate from the University of North Carolina. I now have that opportunity to do that, and given my family background, it's important to me that I get to attend this university. I want to honor my family's legacy by going to this school.' The second applicant says, 'I'm from North Carolina, my family's been in this area for generations, since before the Civil War, but they were slaves and never had a chance to attend this venerable institution. As an African American, I now have that opportunity, and given my family—family background, it's important to me to attend this university. I want to honor my family legacy by going to this school.'
While speaking to a lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing UNC and Harvard over affirmative action, Justice Jackson said that "as I understand your no-race-conscious admissions rule, these two applicants would have a dramatically different opportunity to tell their family stories and to have them count. The first applicant would be able to have his family background considered and valued by the institution as part of its consideration of whether or not to admit him, while the second one wouldn't be able to because his story is in many ways bound up with his race and with the race of his ancestors."
In essence, Jackson argued that legacy admissions, at least those that extent several generations, overwhelmingly favor white applicants, reported Inside Higher Ed, a position with which Justice Neil Gorsuch appeared to agree.
James Murphy, a senior policy analyst at Education Reform Now, told Inside Higher Ed that he does not expect the court to rule on the issue of legacy admissions. However, he added that it may not matter.
"I don't know how any college president or Board of Trustees member can possibly preserve legacy preferences if the court tells colleges they can no longer consider the race of an applicant. Shame alone will make it necessary to drop legacy preferences."
On the other hand, Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs of the American Council on Education, a group which filed a brief defending affirmative action, did not seem to think that the practice was going away any time soon.
"Legacy preferences have been around for a long time—so are the arguments in favor and the arguments against," Hartle told Inside Higher Ed.
Inside Higher Ed