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Wesleyan University's president on the school's decision to end legacy admissions


Wesleyan, a private and selective liberal arts university in Connecticut, announced this week that it will end its practice of legacy admissions. In other words, it will stop giving admission preference to the children of its alumni. Wesleyan's move follows the Supreme Court's June decision to strike down race-conscious college admissions. For more, we're joined now by Michael Roth, Wesleyan's president. Good morning. Thanks for being on the program.

MICHAEL ROTH: Good morning. Good to be with you.

FADEL: So legacy admission is seen as something that benefits wealthy white students. Was your decision a direct response to the Supreme Court's decision to end affirmative action?

ROTH: Well, legacy admissions has been only a small part of our program for several years. And although I thought we should do away with it some time ago, I didn't - it was a popular program among some alumni, and I didn't see the urgency of doing away with a program that only affected very few students a year. But in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision, it became clear to me that any advantage you give to incumbents, to people who already have advantages, is a glaring sign of unfairness. And we want to recruit a very diverse student body. And I want to send the signal to everybody that Wesleyan is committed to doing that. And that means not advantaging people who already have advantages.

FADEL: But how do you do that in a situation where the cost of that education is so high? Tuition at your university is nearly $70,000 a year, and that doesn't even include housing. Of course, that's not unique to your school. Are you looking at bringing down cost as the biggest barrier to diversifying your admissions beyond the most wealthy, the most privileged?

ROTH: No, because if you get into Wesleyan and are attending Wesleyan, we meet your full financial need. So if you have no economic resources, it's free to come to the school. And that's one of the things we're trying to get across to people in Title I high schools, people who don't have economic resources, who see the sticker price and say, gosh, I can't go to a school like that. But, in fact, our financial aid program, which is funded mostly through generous donations - our financial aid program makes it possible for anybody who is accepted to attend.

FADEL: Right. But they have to go through the process to qualify for these scholarships, creating barriers that they wouldn't have otherwise, and that - there's a huge margin between Black communities, white communities - because of the history of this country. I mean, how do you diversify the class beyond legacy admissions?

ROTH: We have to be very aggressive in recruiting students from places that haven't typically looked at schools like Wesleyan. I think you're right. The history of this country leads some communities to think those places are not for me, and we have to spend a lot more time in Title I high schools, in parts of the country that - where there's a concentration of people with modest economic means to recruit folks who would benefit from a Wesleyan education and, in turn, would help teach other people about the lives they're about to embark upon after graduation. I think that call for diversity is much harder because of the Supreme Court's decision to not allow us to take race into effect. But there are many other ways in which we can diversify the class, and we're committed to doing that. And legacy admissions - again, it affects so few people. What's really important is that we spread educational opportunity around this country, that we improve the K-12 system, that we adequately fund not just private schools but public universities and community colleges. Legacy admissions is attractive to talk about, but the real issues are elsewhere.

FADEL: So what ways? You said there are other ways to improve diversity. What ways are there, and what are you going to do?

ROTH: So in our case, we've been working with the National Educational Equity Foundation to bring high-quality online and hybrid courses into high-poverty areas of the country and high-poverty high schools. We've been actively recruiting veterans who - for whom a liberal arts education may seem, oh, gosh, that's not for me, and upon reflection and given the right kind of information and when they are aware of financial aid, they realize it can be for them. We've started a recruiting program internationally in Africa, bringing groups of African students every year to the United States and with full scholarships at Wesleyan. And so there are a number of programs that were initiated to let people know that coming to a place like Wesleyan is exactly for them and that this country should be open for educational opportunity for everyone.

FADEL: That's Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University. Thank you for your time.

ROTH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.