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How Virginia universities view legacy admissions

A statue of Thomas Jefferson stand in front of a building with columns and a domed roof
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands in front of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Also known as legacy preferences, the practice refers to children of alumni or donors to the institution.

Dating back to the 1920s, elite universities used it to limit the number of Jewish students and students of color while enrolling more Anglo-Protestants. It also boosts a student’s odds of enrollment due to family connections.

After the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in June, many colleges and universities focused on reviewing their legacy admissions policies. U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, criticized the practice in a social media post: “Let's be clear: affirmative action still exists for white people. It's called legacy admissions.”

Though it’s more prevalent in private universities, public universities in five states — Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island — offer a legacy preference for children of alumni. In Virginia, 80% of public colleges and universities offer legacy preference admissions, according to a report from Education Reform Now.

On July 24, the Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into Harvard’s admissions process. Since then, calls for an end to legacy preferences have grown louder. George Mason University and Hampton University allowed legacy preferences until both schools stopped the practice in 2015.

The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg issued the following statement: "William & Mary has a competitive admission process. As part of that process the university considers a variety of factors including indicators of an applicant’s propensity to enroll ... . Legacy status is among those indicators, alongside others available to all applicants such as interviewing (in-person or virtually) or visiting campus."

In a June statement, President Katherine Rowe wrote in response to the Supreme Court decision: “Within the law, William & Mary will remain intentional about recruiting the best and brightest students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and experiences. We will ensure that the William & Mary continues to be a place where great minds and hearts find great opportunities to learn, grow and contribute.”

Virginia Tech eliminated its legacy preferences on July 28. “We’ve placed less and less emphasis on legacy in recent years, to the point that it’s not factoring into admissions decisions in any significant way, and yet our legacy numbers have remained really strong,” said Juan Espinoza, associate vice provost for enrollment management.

Four days later, the University of Virginia altered its application by replacing the self-disclosed checkbox for legacy connections with an open-ended essay question about prospective applicants’ relationships to the university. As Cardinal News' Dwayne Yancey wrote, that doesn't eliminate the school's use of the practice; UVA, W&M and Virginia Military Institute are the only three public higher education institutions in the commonwealth to do so as of the fall 2023 admissions cycle.

At the state level, there’s no legislation prohibiting legacy admissions — and there likely won't be until the next General Assembly session begins in 2024. But in August, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares wrote a column published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch calling for universities to stop legacy admissions and view applicants as individuals.