Bowdoin College in Brunswick, pictured here in 2018, says legacy students account for 5% of its incoming freshman class. Maine’s other highly selective colleges, Colby and Bates, would not provide that information. Joel Page/Staff Photographer, File

Maine’s most selective colleges have been tight-lipped about how much preference they give to applicants who are related to alumni and donors – a long-held admissions practice that is facing scrutiny for providing another advantage to already privileged students in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down race-based affirmative action.

At least two of Maine’s three elite colleges – Bowdoin College in Brunswick and Colby College in Waterville – currently give weight to applicants’ status as children of alumni, often called legacy students. Bowdoin declined to say if it considers whether applicants are related to donors, while Colby College said it does not. Bates College in Lewiston did not comment after multiple queries about whether the school practices legacy or donor-related admissions.

Just days after the Supreme Court’s June 29 affirmative action decision, the Boston-based group Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights calling for the investigation of Harvard University’s legacy and donor-related admissions practices. The complaint calls for the government to label the school’s practices discriminatory and bar it from considering legacy status and relationship to donors in its admissions process. If investigators choose to look into the claims, Harvard could be forced to prove the educational necessity of the practices, end them or say goodbye to federal funding.

A separate initiative is asking alumni of 30 elite schools to withhold donations until the schools end legacy admissions. The campaign was started by EdMobilizer, a collective of first-generation college students and graduates working to create opportunities for social mobility.

Even a former Harvard president came out to say it’s time to end legacy admissions.

“After this earthquake from the court, I hope that elite institutions will broaden their focus from diversifying the racial composition of their ivory towers to additional dimensions of diversity and broadening their commitment to opportunity and social justice,” Larry Summers, who also served as U.S. Treasury secretary, wrote in a July 1 Washington Post op-ed.


The potential findings of a federal investigation or enough pressure from outside influences could set a precedent for ending these practices at other schools, including those in Maine.

Proponents of legacy admissions say admitting students whose family members have a connection to the institution creates a strong community around the school, and that legacy students whose families make significant donations help the school’s bottom line, allowing it to afford more opportunities at a lower cost to other students.

Opponents say favoring legacy students perpetuates inequality in selective higher education by providing a boost to largely white, wealthy and advantaged applicants.

Bates, Bowdoin and Colby would not answer specific questions about the practice except to say that they consider many factors when deciding whether to admit a student.

“Colby’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid practices a holistic review process, evaluating each applicant as an individual within the context of their unique background, and does not give preference to students based solely on legacy status,” the school said in a statement.

“Bates takes a holistic approach to admissions,” said Bates College spokesperson Mary Pols.


“Bowdoin has considered legacy status/alumni relation as one factor in our holistic process. In the class that will matriculate this fall, 5% of the incoming students have a legacy connection,” said Doug Cook, a spokesperson for the college.

Bates and Colby declined to say what percent of their incoming freshman class is made up of legacy students. All three declined to provide the acceptance rate for legacy students joining this fall’s freshman class, the percentage of this fall’s legacy students who are expected to pay full tuition, or the racial breakdown of their fall legacy classes.

For the most part, private college admissions data is kept behind closed doors. But researchers studying the issue have long found that being a legacy applicant drastically increases one’s odds of acceptance, and that legacy admissions is largely beneficial to wealthy and white students and detrimental to nonwhite, first-generation, immigrant and low-income students.

In one study, researchers found that having legacy status is the equivalent of a 160-point boost on the SAT. Another found that legacy students tend to have lower SAT scores than the school’s average and to get lower grades in college than their counterparts. Another still determined that the admissions rate at elite institutions triples for legacy students.

Information revealed in the Supreme Court case against Harvard aligned with those findings, disclosing that 70% of Harvard’s legacy- and donor-related applicants are white and that legacy students are six times more likely to be admitted than their nonlegacy counterparts.

Without data from the colleges, it is not possible to say how much weight being a legacy student holds and whether legacy admissions policies have an outsized benefit for white students at Bates, Bowdoin and Colby the same way they do at other schools.


But experts say that generally, considering legacy status is almost certain to benefit wealthy and white students.

“Legacy is based on history, on lineage, on your family. So because of historic inequities and who did and didn’t have access to elite colleges, (legacy admissions) is going to disproportionately benefit applicants from wealthy and white backgrounds,” said Stephanie Owen, an economics professor at Colby College.

This is important because college admissions is a zero-sum game – if one student gains admission, that means another does not.

With the overturning of affirmative action, some say that giving legacy applicants who are likely white and wealthier a leg up is more indefensible than ever because there is nothing to counterbalance it.

Legacy preferences “expand privilege instead of opportunity,” President Biden said after the affirmative action ruling.

Duke economics professor Peter Arcidiacono said he agrees.


“In my view, we should not have legacy admissions,” he said.

Arcidiacono, who served as an expert witness for Students Against Affirmative Action in the Supreme Court case, said he can understand the arguments in favor of legacy admissions: that legacy students are coming from families that tend to be richer and more likely to donate, and that those donations ultimately get turned into higher levels of financial aid and other communal resources.

But he said that, ultimately, the costs of having legacy admissions outweighs the benefits as it crowds out spots for people who might come from poorer backgrounds and lowers trust in institutions of higher education because people can see that the game is rigged.

“It furthers inequality rather than addresses it,” Arcidiacono said of legacy admissions.

For those who have benefited from the practice, legacy admissions is a touchy subject. Only two of a dozen Bates, Bowdoin and Colby alumni contacted by the Press Herald who were legacies themselves or whose children are legacies were willing to talk about the topic. The two who agreed to speak retracted their interviews after their children, one a current student and the other a 2023 graduate, requested that they do so.

The Maine colleges said they would work to maintain diversity at their schools despite the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling.


“We will take this opportunity to do what we do best: think creatively and experiment with new strategies consistent with the law that will allow us to continue to craft a class with diverse identities, life experiences, interests, and perspectives,” Bates College President Clayton Spencer and President-elect Garry W. Jenkins said in a statement released following the decision. 

None of the colleges could say precisely how they would do so or whether they were considering doing away with legacy admissions.

“Admissions officers are currently reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court opinion with legal counsel,” a Bowdoin College spokesperson said. “It is too early to say how the ruling will impact our admissions process.”

Legacy admissions has a long history in schools in the upper echelons of higher education. But those schools serve a tiny fraction of all college students. Only 6% of all college students attend a school with a 25% or lower acceptance rate, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. But most schools in the country accept every or near every applicant, and where one’s parents went to school and what race an applicant is is not a consideration.

“Policies like affirmative action and legacy admissions apply to selective colleges, but for the majority of colleges and students, these policies are actually irrelevant,” Owens said.

“These elite schools take up a lot of space. There are a lot of students who could be helped by focusing on schools outside of those we hear about,” Owens added. “We ignore a lot of students when we focus on just the tippy top.”

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