In a move that has ignited debates in academia and beyond, the University of Virginia (UVA) announced recently that it has adjusted its policy concerning legacy preferences in admissions. This change comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard College, et al. (“SFFA”), ruling against the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions programs, which has already reverberated across American colleges and universities, compelling many to reexamine their legacy admissions policies.
The Supreme Court’s Decision and Its Implications
The Supreme Court’s June 2023 decision in SFFA against race-conscious admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, sent shockwaves throughout the educational community. While the ruling did not directly mandate changes to legacy preferences in admissions, it has renewed scrutiny of the practice. This scrutiny particularly focuses on whether legacy admissions contribute to racial inequality by primarily benefiting White and wealthy applicants.
UVA’s Nuanced Approach to Legacy Admissions
Rather than doing away with legacy considerations altogether, UVA is attempting a nuanced approach. The university eliminated the direct checkbox indicating legacy status on applications. Instead, applicants can now provide a response to a supplemental essay question elaborating on their “personal or historic connection” to the university and explaining how that connection prepares them to contribute meaningfully to the success of the school. This comes as part of the changes in the Common Application for the 2023-24 cycle, which UVA and other schools have adapted to suit the current landscape of college admissions.
Reactions to the Change
UVA’s move has garnered criticism from those who argue that it does little to address the advantages that legacy students have in admissions. Some critics have noted that by allowing applicants to write about their connections to the university, UVA might be amplifying the importance of legacy status, rather than diminishing it. This raises the question in the minds of some as to whether UVA is attempting to reap the public relations benefits of appearing to limit the impact of legacy preferences in admissions, without doing so.
The Ongoing Debate
The real debate isn’t just about a checkbox or an optional question on an application form. Rather, it is about whether legacy preferences in admissions perpetuate a cycle of White and wealth privileges that runs counter to the stated ideal of academic institutions as meritocracies. While UVA leaders insist that their new policy will allow all applicants to tell their unique stories, they did not definitively say that alumni connections would no longer be considered, leaving room for interpretation and debate.
Potential Impact of UVA’s New Approach
The optional question concerning an applicant’s connection to UVA could be a double-edged sword. While it provides a platform for individuals to highlight unique historical or familial ties to the university, it also allows legacies to explicitly state their connection, potentially preserving or even strengthening the legacy advantage. Consequently, it remains to be seen what impact this policy change has, including whether it will lead to a more diverse and equitable student body in Charlottesville.
The University of Virginia’s recent shift in legacy admissions policy is a sign of broader changes and debates that universities across America will face, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in SFFA on race-conscious admissions. Will other schools take a nuanced approach like UVA? Or will they eliminate legacy admissions altogether? These questions, and others, open a complex set of challenges tied to diversity, fairness, and, ultimately, institutional values.
If you’re a college or university administrator, prospective student, or parent needing guidance on these evolving issues in college admissions, our attorneys are here to help. With deep expertise in higher educational law, we can offer strategic advice as you navigate this shifting landscape.
Contact Tim Hughes, firstname.lastname@example.org, Doug Taylor, email@example.com, one of our highly experienced attorneys at Bean, Kinney & Korman, P.C., at (703) 525-4000. We practice in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
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