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Massachusetts lawmakers target "affirmative action for the wealthy"

Ruth Simmons on affirmative action ruling
Ruth Simmons on impact of affirmative action ruling and how schools can work towards diversity 04:34

So-called legacy college admissions — or giving preference to the children of alumni — is coming under new scrutiny following the Supreme Court's ruling last week that scraps the use of affirmative action to pick incoming students. 

Lawmakers in Massachusetts are proposing a new fee that would be levied on the state's colleges and universities that use legacy preferences when admitting students, including Harvard University and Williams College, a highly ranked small liberal arts college. Any money raised by the fee would then be used to fund community colleges within the state. 

The proposed law comes as a civil rights group earlier this month sued Harvard over legacy admissions at the Ivy League school, alleging the practice discriminates against students of color by giving an unfair advantage to the mostly White children of alumni. Harvard and Williams declined to comment on the proposed legislation.

Highly ranked schools such as Harvard have long relied on admissions strategies that, while legal, are increasingly sparking criticism for giving a leg up to mostly White, wealthy students. Legacy students, the children of faculty and staff, recruited athletes and kids of wealthy donors represented 43% of the White students admitted to Harvard, a 2019 study found.

"Legacy preference, donor preference and binding decision amount to affirmative action for the wealthy," Massachusetts Rep. Simon Cataldo, one of the bill's co-sponsors, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

The Massachusetts lawmakers would also fine colleges that rely on another strategy often criticized as providing an unfair advantage to students from affluent backgrounds: early-decision applications, or when students apply to a school before the general admissions round. 

Early decision usually has a higher acceptance rate than the general admissions pool, but it typically draws wealthier applicants
because early applicants may not know how much financial aid they could receive before having to decide on whether to attend. 

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Because Ivy League colleges now routinely cost almost $90,000 a year, it's generally the children of the very rich who can afford to apply for early decision. 

"At highly selective schools, the effect of these policies is to elevate the admissions chances of wealthy students above higher-achieving students who don't qualify as a legacy or donor prospect, or who need to compare financial aid packages before committing to a school," Cataldo said.

$100 million from Harvard

The proposed fee as part of the bill would be levied on the endowments of colleges and universities that rely on such strategies. Cataldo estimated that the law would generate over $120 million in Massachusetts each year, with $100 million of that stemming from Harvard. 

That's because Harvard has a massive endowment of $50.9 billion, making it one of the nation's wealthiest institutions of higher education. In 2020, the university had the largest endowment in the U.S., followed by Yale and the University of Texas college system, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Not all colleges allow legacy admissions. Some institutions have foresworn the practice, including another Massachusetts institution, MIT. The tech-focused school also doesn't use binding early decision.

"Just to be clear: we don't do legacy," MIT said in an admissions blog post that it points to as explaining its philosophy. "[W]e simply don't care if your parents (or aunt, or grandfather, or third cousin) went to MIT."

It added, "So to be clear: if you got into MIT, it's because you got into MIT. Simple as that."

"Good actors" in higher education, like MIT,  wouldn't be impacted by the proposed fee, Cataldo noted. 

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