Olha Yarynich, Contributing Photographer

A bill seeking to ban legacy preference in university admissions at all Connecticut schools — both public and private — took center stage in the state legislature on Thurdsay. In a Feb. 29 public hearing, held by the legislature’s joint Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, Yale and seven other universities testified in opposition. 

All other testimonies — which came from students, student collectives, college groups, a non-profit and the Yale College Council — supported the bill. One organization, the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, did not fully support or oppose the bill.

If passed, the bill –– SB 203 –– would prohibit public and private institutions in the state from “inquir[ing] about or consider[ing] a prospective student’s familial relationship to a graduate of such institution” when making admissions decisions.

Committee co-chair Sen. Derek Slap, who has championed the bill, said that he was encouraged by the hearing, which he called “part of a national movement” in state governments to reevaluate legacy admissions.

Slap said that the hearing was “by far the most robust conversation about admissions, legacy, privilege and opportunity in higher education” in which he has participated while part of the General Assembly. 

According to a study last year that drew on internal admissions data from several elite colleges, including Ivy League schools, legacy applicants are often “slightly more qualified yet are four times as likely” to be admitted to top schools.

Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid, Jeremiah Quinlan, testified against the bill for more than an hour over Zoom. In his remarks, Quinlan said he does not believe the General Assembly has the right to interfere with the university admissions practices.

“Just as every Connecticut college or university teaches different classes in different ways in fulfillment of its educational mission, each institution should likewise be allowed to assemble a student body that promotes its educational goals,” Quinlan wrote in a statement that he read out at the hearing. “A university may make a voluntary decision to forgo consideration of legacy status in the application process, but a Connecticut state law dictating that decision for independent colleges and universities would be unprecedented and would invite future legislatures to impose their own views on who should be admitted in ways that threaten academic freedom.”

Quinlan further described progress that the University has made toward enrolling more first-generation and low-income students since he began his tenure as Yale College’s dean of admissions. He argued that banning legacy admissions would not be necessary or useful to the cause of recruiting diverse classes, given the work Yale has done to increase access.

Per his testimony, 22 percent of students in the Yale College class of 2027 are eligible for Pell Grants, 21 percent are first-generation college students and 59 percent are domestic students who identify as members of a minority racial or ethnic group. Over the past 10 years, he said, the number of Pell-eligible students has doubled, and the number of first-generation students has increased by more than 60 percent.

Instead of banning legacy admissions, Quinlan suggested tht the state prioritize initiatives that directly help promote access for first-generation and low-income students, such as increased support for recruitment and outreach programs. He specifically noted increased support toward enrichment programs for less-advantaged high school students and increased funding of the Roberta Willis Scholarship Program, which offers need-based grants to Connecticut students enrolled at any of the 18 participating public and non-profit private colleges in the state. 

State Rep. Gary Turco said that preference for applicants with legacy status creates an “uneven playing field” that he believes has contributed to a larger national trend of decreased trust in higher education. Citing nationwide declines in enrollment numbers, high student loan debt and admissions scandals, Turco said that the message the bill might send about fairness would be as important as any practical impact on the universities’ diversity.

Turco estimated that currently, around 40 or 50 legislators would be prepared to vote in favor of the bill, noting that most others have not yet made a decision and only a “handful” would likely vote against it, out of the total 151 legislators in the House. He hypothesized that those who would vote against the bill are likely to do so because they are concerned about overregulating private institutions, not necessarily because they are in favor of maintaining legacy preference in admissions.

Turco said that although he thinks the bill is likely to pass in committee, he suspects it will struggle in a broader vote in the legislature because “private universities hold a lot of weight in the state.”

Rep. Dominique Johnson said that while they support the idea of a bill banning legacy preference, they are not satisfied with the current bill and would like to see it also ban schools from considering the donor status of an applicant’s family. Johnson is also advocating for the bill to clarify whether it applies to graduate and professional schools as well as undergraduate schools.

Birikti Kahsai ’27, who is a senator representing Branford College in the Yale College Council, testified at the hearing on behalf of the YCC. She told the News that the YCC has begun to advocate against legacy admissions as part of a broad collaboration between several student governments of Ivy League universities that have been adopting a unified stance against legacy admissions.

“We emphasize that the archaic practice of granting advantages in the application process on the basis of familial ties is antithetical to Yale’s commitment to meritocratic admissions,” the YCC testimony states. “Those historically granted the opportunity to form such connections were overwhelmingly White, wealthy and Protestant, due to the inaccessibility of higher education.”

Kahsai stressed that the goal of the YCC in opposing and testifying against the bill is not to attack individual legacy students but rather to pressure the Yale administration about its use of legacy preference, which she said YCC views as “incompatible” with Yale’s other admissions policies.

The testimony from the YCC was undersigned by seven Yale cultural clubs as well as The Yale First-Generation and/or Low-Income Advocacy Movement.

Jim Zhou GRD ’24 also testified at the hearing. He explained that he relied on food stamps throughout his time at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He said that UCLA’s legacy-blind admissions approach has allowed the school to “excel with socioeconomic diversity” — and that Yale is lagging behind.

“I think that legacy admissions are perhaps one of the biggest barriers to achieving socio-economic diversity on campus because legacy applicants overwhelmingly come from backgrounds that have enormous amounts of privilege,” Zhou told the News.

New Haven civil rights attorney Alex Taubes LAW ’15 explained that the Connecticut legislature draws its authority to regulate private institutions, including universities, from an authority of state governments known as “police power.”

“This power allows the state to impose certain requirements on private institutions to ensure they contribute positively to the state’s goals for its education system and the overall well-being of its residents,” Taubes wrote in an email to the News. “When it comes to education, states have a particular interest in ensuring that institutions serve the public good, as education is closely linked to economic development, civic participation, and social equity.”

Taubes added that consumer protection law specifically could provide potential justification for a ban affecting private universities, with prospective students considered as consumers who ought to be protected from unfair or discriminatory practices.

Slap said that a vote on the bill in the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee will likely take place on either Tuesday or Thursday of next week; if passed, the bill will progress to the Senate floor of the larger legislature.

The bill, if enacted, would go into effect on July 1.

Josie Reich covers Admissions, Financial Aid & Alumni for the News. Originally from Washington, DC, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in American Studies.
Molly Reinmann covers Admissions, Financial Aid & Alumni for the News. Originally from Westchester, New York, she is a sophomore in Berkeley College majoring in American Studies.