Banning legacy admissions will deliver another blow to the children of Black alumni

We finally made it in the door, and now some seek new ways to slam the door behind us.
Mari Chiles and her father, and Nick Chiles

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Mari Chiles and her father, and Nick Chiles.

As we made our way down one of the city streets that bisect the Yale campus, cars zooming by, my daughter Mari swept a wide-eyed gaze across the grand Gothic cathedrals that are Yale’s residential colleges.

“I didn’t expect it to be so … fancy,” she said, her voice full of wonder. She was six, and I knew “fancy” was her word for impressive, extravagant.

She’d heard about this place where I had spent four years of my life precisely 20 years earlier; she had been eagerly looking forward to attending the “reunion,” which was a new word for her. She knew we were going to school — but in her mind, schools didn’t look like this. Fascination began to seep in.

Vivid memories of that day came flooding back to me in the fall of 2017, when we dropped Mari off for her freshman year at Yale — 11 years after her first encounter. Her fascination had bloomed into excitement, into anxiety, into elation mixed surely with some fear.

I had my own surprises in store at the drop-off and in the four years that followed. What I discovered, what nobody had warned me about, was that having your child attend your alma mater can produce a powerful cocktail of emotions.

It blindsided me. Wait, are these tears in my eyes? It was more than the customary sadness of the college drop-off.

As our children get older and transition to lives outside our homes, we fight a constant state of anxiety — What are they doing right now? Are they happy? Are they safe? That’s especially true for Black parents like me. But I knew this place where Mari would be, its hidden alleyways, its social centers, its sublime pockets of solitude tucked away in unlikely places.

As I drove away that September, I felt my parenting anxiety subside just a bit. While she would be challenged, I also knew she’d be surrounded by a vast array of resources that could help her discover new things about herself and offer her exhilarating new adventures.

But some want to deny parents like me the excitement derived from a profound shared experience with their children. Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon and the University of California system have dropped legacy admissions preferences. Colorado and Virginia have banned them for their public universities; similar legislation has been introduced in New York and Connecticut. Yale, too, is debating dropping them.

After the Supreme Court’s decision last June dismantling affirmative action, this movement to end legacy admissions can be seen as another blow to ambitious Black children — the ones whose parents were part of the first generation of nonwhites to matriculate at elite institutions in significant numbers. We finally made it in the door, and now some seek new ways to slam the door behind us.

Yale’s president, President Salovey, has said that if legacy applicants were denied, they likely would be replaced by similar students, whose parents simply went to different elite colleges.

As an alum who has been interviewing Yale applicants for three decades, as an interested observer, as a Yale parent, I know who will continue to benefit from the admissions system, with or without legacy admissions: the children of the wealthy and powerful.

I understand the desire to create a system that feels fair and inclusive. It’s a worthy goal. However, high-achieving children from low-income families rarely apply to schools like Yale. There’s even a term to describe their reluctance: undermatching. Studies show that when it comes time to apply, low-income students are half as likely to pick a selective college as high-income students with similar grades and test scores.

And Black applicants are similarly rare at the most selective schools. In 36 years of interviewing applicants for Yale, seeing about four per year, I can count the number of Black applicants I’ve interviewed on two hands — with a couple of fingers left over.

So, banning legacies will not transform the demographics of the applicant pool.

This feels like another case in which polite society wakes up and decides fairness should now be a priority and the system should be changed — just when my people have started benefiting from the system. In sheer numbers, if legacy admissions are banned along with affirmative action, I believe that Black people will suffer the most.

The onus will fall on Black applicants to play a game of cat and mouse with the admissions officers — give them just enough info so they know your race; offer just enough detail so they know a parent attended the school. Then hope for the best.

What deeply concerns me is the way elite schools will prove they are now complying with the new law of the land: They will need to show that their number of Black students has decreased. Ugh. In future years, an applicant like my daughter — a Black legacy — will represent a flashing warning light to the admissions office, like the “check engine” light on a car dashboard: Tread carefully; danger ahead.

Trying to root out preferences for the wealthy in a society specifically designed for the advancement of the wealthy is disingenuous and unrealistic. We pay lip service to the goal of equity and fairness, but we know that the elite college admissions process will continue to send the wealthy and powerful to schools created to educate the wealthy and powerful so that they will continue to be wealthy and powerful. Ending legacies might make some folks feel better, but it’s unlikely to change this equation.

Nick Chiles, a New York Times bestselling author, is a writer in residence and professor at the University of Georgia. He is a member of the journalism advisory board of The Hechinger Report, which produced this essay.

This story about legacy admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.