Jazz Lewis wound up at the University of Maryland, not by luck or privilege, but by the strings of a guitar.

A Prince George’s County native, now a Maryland House delegate, Lewis said he paid for his college degree with a mix of scholarships and money earned from stints with his church band. As one of the first men in his family to attend college, he said higher education was by no means a given; he earned it.

And that’s why, Lewis said, he sponsored legislation designed to eliminate the use of legacy preference at Maryland universities.

“I’m a Terp. I would love for my son to go there,” he said about College Park. “But I just think, as a matter of public policy, state money shouldn’t be helping fulfill these types of preferences.”

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His bill passed just before the end of the legislative session, and Gov. Wes Moore signed it into law last week. The new requirements take effect July 1.

The idea for the legislation came last summer, after the Supreme Court ruled against the consideration of race in college admissions. Lewis, like many others across the country, wondered why colleges could still consider whether an applicant was the child of alumni or donors, but not the child’s race. But while some have lauded the measure, others say it’s simply not enough unless it comes with other efforts to foster diversity on campus.

House Majority Whip Jazz Lewis sits in the House chamber on “crossover day” in the Maryland State House in Annapolis in March. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Lewis, a 35-year-old Democrat serving his second term in the state legislature, sees it as an easy win for Maryland, one of the most racially diverse states in the country, where the most selective college, Johns Hopkins University, and the state’s flagship, the University of Maryland, already do not consider legacy status in admissions.

Maryland is the third state to eliminate the practice, as the question of fairness in admissions undergoes increased scrutiny across the country. Colorado was the first state to ban legacy preference in 2021, and earlier this spring, Virginia became the second.

Legislators in California, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Connecticut are considering similar proposals. On the federal level, Senators Tim Kaine (a Democrat) and Todd Young (a Republican) have introduced a bill that would prevent colleges from being accredited if they considered legacy or donor connections in admissions.

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Julie J. Park, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies equity in college admissions, said that giving preference to applicants who have ties to alumni or donors unfairly benefits students who likely already have advantages over their peers.

“They’re obviously not first-generation college students, they’re not suffering due to lack of opportunity,” Park said, and those with fewer advantages “are usually the students we want to help.”

And even though elite colleges have slowly diversified over the past several decades, Park said, the students who benefit from legacy preference are still disproportionately white and affluent.

Across the country, racial disparities in access to college are pervasive. Far more white Americans than Black Americans hold college degrees, and the gap is growing. And many taxpayer-funded flagship universities, including in Maryland, have been failing to enroll Black and Latino students in the same proportions as Black and Latino graduates from their state’s high schools.

The Supreme Court’s majority determined that attempts to diversify college campuses with affirmative action policies violated the Constitution’s equal protections clause designed to prevent race-based discrimination. But the court’s dissenting justices argued that ignoring race would hurt, rather than help, students from historically disadvantaged groups, and reverse progress on promoting more inclusive campuses.

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In the wake of the decision, the Departments of Education and Justice jointly released a list of recommendations for colleges to use to advance opportunities for applicants from historically underrepresented groups. The list included eliminating legacy considerations from admissions — but some institutions have hesitated to adopt this recommendation.

James Murphy, the director of postsecondary policy at the advocacy group Education Reform, said he expects legacy admission preferences to disappear fairly soon, through a combination of legislation, like Maryland’s bill, and institutions voluntarily dropping the practice.

But, he added, “Legislation has become necessary because colleges have not chosen to do the right thing themselves.”

Why colleges like legacy admissions

At least 593 colleges across the United States reported that they considered legacy status in admissions during the 2022-2023 academic year, according to the most recently available data from the National Center for Education Statistics, a number that has subsequently shrunk due to state bans.

Among the schools that consider legacy status are 13 in Maryland: Bowie State University; Capitol Technology University; Goucher College; Hood College; Loyola University, Maryland; Mount St. Mary’s University; Notre Dame of Maryland University; Salisbury University; St. Mary’s College of Maryland; United States Naval Academy; Washington College; and Women’s Institute of Torah Seminary and College.

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Murphy said that passing this kind of legislation matters because “it sends a clear signal that Maryland is a state that doesn’t believe it’s fair to give students an advantage that is passed along family bloodlines.”

And, he said, just because some college leaders have volunteered to drop the practice, it doesn’t mean their successors will follow the same course. Creating laws that prohibit the consideration of legacy status in admissions, he added, will ensure that these practices become a relic of the past.

Park said that states like Maryland banning the practice can contribute to the momentum of the movement across the country.

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“We can say, ‘Hey, this is something that if institutions are not brave enough on their own to step away from it, then, you know, states will act,’” Park said.

Research shows that elite colleges benefit from accepting legacy students. These students often matriculate at higher rates than their peers, boosting completion rates and other success metrics, and their alumni family members are more likely to donate.

Johns Hopkins University ended legacy-conscious admissions in 2013, a move that university President Ronald J. Daniels said helped boost its proportion of low-income and first-generation students. The number of Pell Grant recipients increased by about 10 percentage points from 2013 to 2022, according to data from the Johns Hopkins Admissions Office. Meanwhile, the number of legacy students dropped from more than 8% in 2013 to less than 2% over that same period, while the percentage of first-generation college students grew from about 8% to 21%.

In an interview, Daniels said that creating more parity during the admissions process has augmented the social fabric of the campus during a period he described as “highly polarized” across the country.

“There’s a richness of debate you’re able to have on a set of contemporary political and social issues that is possible with more diverse students,” Daniels said.

Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels delivers remarks during the opening ceremony of the Bloomberg Center in Washington, D.Cl, in October 2023. (Michael A. McCoy/for the Baltimore Banner)

The institution did initially weigh the effect the move would have on alumni support, Daniels said. But he said the evidence has since been clear that alumni giving has not significantly declined.

Daniels said ending legacy considerations in admissions represented just a piece of the equation that has produced a more representative student body at Hopkins. The institution also benefited, he said, from a massive, $1.8 billion donation from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2018 that allowed Hopkins to provide more need-based financial assistance to students. And it has changed its recruiting and outreach procedures to identify more students who may not have considered Hopkins as an option.

“We have worked very deliberately to change the applicant pool,” Daniels said. “The truth is, it’s multifactorial … but I don’t think we would’ve been entirely as successful at changing the percentage of students from Pell-eligible populations had it not been for the coupling of the legacy admissions [ban] and the change in strategy.”

If Hopkins can end legacy-conscious admissions, Lewis, the state delegate, said, other Maryland institutions should have no problem following suit.

“If it’s good for the most selective private institution in the state, then all the other private institutions in the state, I think, can come aboard,” Lewis said, “to make sure this is the clear law of the land.”

Only a partial solution

In written testimony responding to Lewis’ bill, Matt Power, president of the Maryland Independent College and University Association, wrote that some private institutions in the state do consider “alumni relationships” as part of a comprehensive application process. But Power said students who do not meet admission standards for a given school are never accepted due to legacy or alumni relationships alone, and the consideration does not cause students without such connections to be rejected.

He also wrote that alumni relationships can be powerful tools to recruit and attract prospective students. The group did not take a position on the legislation.

During committee hearings, Lewis and the bill’s co-sponsor, state Sen. Benjamin Brooks, a Baltimore County Democrat, also faced questions about the legislation having “unintended consequences” for students of color and low-income students applying to selective institutions that had accepted their parents or relatives.

State Sen. Benjamin Brooks worried the admissions restrictions could work against low-income applicants or students of color trying to attend the same school as their parents. (Shan Wallace)

Brooks, an Army veteran who attended college with help from the G.I. Bill, acknowledged that the legislation might have flaws. But the bill has a clear objective, he said: equalizing college admissions.

“The [Supreme] Court taking the stance they did ... This is the road we’re going to start traveling down,” Brooks said. “This is one way of bringing some equity back into the process.”

Supporters of fair admissions acknowledge that ending legacy-conscious admissions won’t automatically diversify college campuses. Other measures, they say, would be more effective.

“These legacy admission bans often are simply a way to create the illusion of change and excusing institutions that end the practice from taking more substantive steps,” former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King said during a conference keynote address earlier this year. “The reality is, this is performative wokeness when transformative action is what is desperately needed.”

King, now the chancellor of the State University of New York, said that the legacy admissions ban must come with other efforts to increase socioeconomic diversity among the student body.

He said colleges should strive to double the number of Pell-eligible students and try harder to recruit students from rural communities. He urged colleges to value student extracurricular activities such as part-time jobs or caring for family members as much as “equestrian trophies or glam charity outings in the more vacation-friendly developing nations.”

It’s important to diversify the nation’s most selective colleges in particular, King said, because they educate so many future leaders. But focusing conversations about educational equity on these colleges doesn’t make sense because such a small percentage of Americans attend highly selective institutions.

Meanwhile, along with the legacy preference ban, Maryland lawmakers also cut $12.7 million in community college budget funds to save money. And yet, they also have passed a bill that would require public colleges in Maryland to “attract and graduate” a diverse student body and target their recruitment and outreach efforts in “certain communities of interest,” defined as groups, demographics or geographic areas that may be underrepresented on state campuses, according to a nonpartisan outline of the bill.

Lewis, the state delegate, said he can’t remember meeting with University of Maryland recruiters as he looked into colleges. He now has two degrees from College Park, which he attributes to hard work — but he hopes his bill can make the process easier for the next generation of Black and low-income scholars to get their feet in the door.

“I don’t see this bill as a silver bullet,” Lewis said. “I see it as one piece of our broader collection of bills that me and other colleagues are bringing to make sure that we don’t move backwards in Maryland. And hopefully, we can be a leader in the country.”

This story about banning legacy admissions was produced by The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit local news site, and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for The Hechinger Report’s higher education newsletter and listen to their higher education podcast.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct an error in federal data. McDaniel College does not consider legacy status in admissions.

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