Tuesday, Nov. 7, U.S. Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-In.) introduced the Merit-Based Educational Reforms and Institutional Transparency Act. This legislation ends consideration of an applicant’s relationship to alumni or donors during the admissions process for colleges and universities in the United States.
Specifically, the MERIT Act would amend the Higher Education Act by adding a new standard for accreditation. The seven-page legislation also requires a comprehensive feasibility study to assess improvements to data collection on the influence of legacy and donor relationships during the admissions process.
“A student’s acceptance into a college should not hinge on whether their parents attended that school or donated a large sum of money.”
“A student’s acceptance into a college should not hinge on whether their parents attended that school or donated a large sum of money,” Kaine wrote in a press release. “This legislation would help bring more fairness to the higher education admissions process, and ensure that first-generation and low-income students are not put at a disadvantage because of their parents’ educational histories or incomes. I will continue to do all that I can through my work on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to expand access to high-quality, affordable education.”
According to a report from Education Reform Now, over 100 colleges and universities have ended the practice of legacy preference in the admissions practice. As of 2020, 787 schools still used the practice, including the College.
The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, of which Kaine is a member.
Mac Ambler ’24 has several family members who attended the College. His mother is vice president for student affairs Virginia Ambler ’88, Ph.D. ’06. He reflected on his mindset as a legacy student.
“Being a legacy student comes with an inherent privilege that was taken into account from the moment I submitted an application to William and Mary.”
“First and foremost, being a legacy student comes with an inherent privilege that was taken into account from the moment I submitted an application to William and Mary,” Ambler said. “I am, therefore, cognizant of the ways in which I have benefited purely as a result of the people I am related to. I do, however, feel a strong connection to this campus and community, knowing that this is the place my parents met, my extended relatives pursued their educations and passions, and my great grandmother forged paths creating opportunities for women at the College in the 1930s. These things bring me a great sense of pride and are part of why I love this school so deeply.”
Ambler conveyed concerns over the negative effects of legacy admissions on student diversity.
“I personally feel that the consideration of legacy status in the admissions process can lead to inherently unfair and exclusionary outcomes,” Ambler said. “College admissions should be based on merit, and introducing selective factors such as legacy status serves to create further barriers to entry for first-generation students and students without a legacy background. Additionally, it can limit efforts to improve diversity by reinforcing long-standing demographics within the campus community. For me, it is important that my acceptance and legitimacy at this university be based purely on the person and student I am, not who I am related to.”
Hannah Dow ’23, M.Ed. ’25 is a member of the First-Generation, Low-Income student organization at the College. She explained the importance of ending legacy admissions, and how the legislation connects to the College’s priorities.
“The primary benefit of ending legacy admissions is eradicating the use of an abrasively exclusionary tool that bars students from traditionally underserved and historically disenfranchised communities from entering higher education.”
“The primary benefit of ending legacy admissions is eradicating the use of an abrasively exclusionary tool that bars students from traditionally underserved and historically disenfranchised communities from entering higher education,” Dow said. “Ending the consideration of legacy status in admissions aligns with President Rowe’s transformative Vision 2026 by aiding efforts to increase diversity in the student body and amplifying the need to foster a more equitable and accessible learning environment on campus.”
Dow also noted the College’s recent efforts to increase access for FGLI students.
“Giving credit where it is due, William and Mary has done a phenomenal job in increasing affordability over the past several years,” Dow said. “Last year, William and Mary guaranteed to cover at least tuition and fees for all incoming Pell-eligible in-state students. Most recently, the Lighting the Way Scholarship will fully cover the cost of attendance for out-of-state students who are Pell-eligible.”
In an email to The Flat Hat, vice president for strategy and innovation Jeremy Martin Ph.D.’12, M.B.A. ’17 described the role of legacy status in the admissions process.
“As part of our competitive process, the university considers a variety of indicators of an applicant’s propensity to enroll, which helps us achieve the targeted class size for enrolling cohorts,” Martin wrote. “Legacy status is among those indicators, alongside others available to all applicants such as interviewing (in-person or virtually) or visiting campus. The propensity of admitted students to enroll who have legacy status (44%) is more than double that for a general applicant (18%), similar to yield rates for applicants who either interview (54%) or visit campus (40%).”
Martin also noted the similarities in common admissions statistics between students with legacy status and all admitted students.
“As I noted to the Board of Visitors during their September meeting, admission to W&M is a competitive process open to all,” Martin wrote. “A review of all admitted students compared to admitted students with legacy status confirmed consistent SAT and high school GPA interquartile ranges for both groups.”
According to Martin, the administration does not comment on pending legislation.
This newly proposed legislation follows Supreme Court rulings in two cases this past June that effectively ended the practice of race-conscious affirmative action.
This decision also prompted public universities across Virginia to change their policies regarding legacy admissions. In July, Virginia Tech announced it would no longer favor children of alumni over other equally qualified applicants. Less than a week later, the University of Virginia announced that applicants would no longer be asked to check a box identifying them as relatives to alumni. Instead, prospective students could respond to a supplemental essay about their personal or historical connection to the university.
Dow also connected the importance of ending legacy admissions to the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action.
“Let’s acknowledge the context of this legislation arising in response to an evolving admissions landscape,” Dow said. “‘Legacy admissions’ has become a sort of buzzword in the aftermath of the SCOTUS decision ending affirmative action. Let’s be real: legacy admissions is affirmative action for rich kids.”
Though she no longer holds an official role in the club, Dow said she still engages with many FGLI events. She currently serves as a mentor in STEP’s FGLI Mentorship Program, as well as on the campus-wide FGLI Advisory Council. Additionally, Dow is a member of the search committee for the College’s inaugural Director of the Office of First-Generation Student Engagement, a new position housed under Student Affairs that Dow said resulted from tireless advocacy work within the FGLI community. According to Dow, the Office will serve as a one-stop-shop at the College.
Even if Kaine’s legislation does not pass the 118th Congress, Ambler expressed optimism for the movement towards ending legacy admissions.
“I hope it shows that the push to increase access and diversity in higher education is alive and well,” Ambler said. “In a time in our country when it feels like areas where we have seen great progress, such as affirmative action, have come under threat, it would be very encouraging to see support for such legislation be taken up by the public at large. I am hopeful that this will be the case.
Dow also noted the importance of continued efforts to ensure diversity among the student body.
“Find a first-gen student or a student of color on this campus and ask them what difference it would have made to meet “someone like them” when they were in the process of choosing their school,” Dow said. “Let’s give students a reason to come here other than the financial aid, because attending college ‘below sticker price’ but at the expense of students’ physical and mental well-being is not the gift we want to convince ourselves that it is. We need to prioritize taking care of and empowering the students who have already entered into and enriched our Tribe community.”
Dow explained that all students, regardless of background, should have an equal opportunity of admission to the College.
“Considering legacy status and/or alumni donations in the admissions process is one of the many ways institutions of higher education say to the world exactly who they do and do not want within the walls of their institutions,” Dow said. “If William and Mary continues to grant legacy preferences to prospective applicants, we can only interpret this as an unequivocal statement that our institution values exclusivity and reputation over upward mobility and return on investment.”