Bloodlines Over Merits: Exposing the Discriminatory Impact of Legacy Preferences in College Admissions

77 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2024

Date Written: March 15, 2024


Legacy preferences in college admissions, which give a boost to applicants with familial ties to the institution, are a ubiquitous yet controversial feature of elite university admissions. While proponents argue that these preferences encourage alumni loyalty and donations, critics contend that they unfairly disadvantage students of color and undermine meritocratic ideals. This article makes the case that legacy preferences constitute unlawful discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Through a comprehensive analysis of legacy preferences' history, disparate impact, and legal status, the article argues that these preferences should be subject to strict scrutiny as a form of racial and ancestral discrimination. It further contends that legacy preferences fail to satisfy even rational basis review, as they do not serve any legitimate educational goals and instead perpetuate inequality. The article explores potential legal challenges to legacy preferences and proposes a range of policy solutions, including voluntary elimination by universities, legislative prohibitions, and enforcement actions by the Department of Education.

Ultimately, the article argues that legacy preferences are incompatible with universities' professed commitment to diversity, equity, and meritocracy, and that eliminating these preferences is essential to creating a more just and inclusive system of higher education. As elite universities face increasing scrutiny over their admissions practices in the wake of the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard decision, this article offers a timely and compelling case for rethinking the role of legacy preferences in the 21st century university.

Keywords: Legacy preferences, college admissions, affirmative action, disparated impact

JEL Classification: K10, K39

Suggested Citation

Trey, Claudia, Bloodlines Over Merits: Exposing the Discriminatory Impact of Legacy Preferences in College Admissions (March 15, 2024). Available at SSRN: or

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