AB 1780: A call for equity in California college admissions 

I’m proud to be one of the many Stanford student organizers working to advance California bill AB 1780, which would penalize California colleges that practice legacy and donor preference. Class Action, a grassroots organization leading a national campaign to end legacy preference, helped introduce the bill at a press conference in Sacramento, and more recently testified to the Committee on Higher Education. The organization was founded by Stanford graduate Ryan Cieslikowski and consists of organizers working on nearly every Ivy+ campus, including Stanford. 

Alyssa Murray, Class Action organizer and co-president of Stanford’s Black Student Union, introduced the bill alongside the author, Assemblymember Phil Ting, at a Capitol press conference in February. Murray said, “preferential treatment to applicants with donor and alumni ties to universities is key to upholding the larger system of inequitable access to secondary education for minority and low-income applicants.” 

The Supreme Court’s overturn of race-conscious admissions has jeopardized the ability of top universities to ensure diversity within their incoming classes. While race-conscious practices meant to protect diversity and redress centuries of racial discrimination have been formally erased from college admissions, legacy applicants and children of donors continue to have a leg up. There is a dearth of data on the racial makeup of legacy admits, but we know that at Harvard, between 2010 and 2015, 70 percent of admitted legacy students were white. Just four percent were Black. 

Opportunity Insights, a research organization led by former Stanford professor Raj Chetty, found that children from families in the top 1% are two times as likely to attend an Ivy+ college as applicants from the middle class with comparable SAT and ACT scores. Legacy admissions, the study reports, is the single leading driver of this disparity of access at Ivy+ schools, which admit more students from the top 1% than the bottom fifty. 

Sophie Callcott, Class Action organizer and Stanford legacy student recognized, “If we’re setting aside a portion of each undergraduate class for already-privileged donor and legacy students — especially as these schools get increasingly selective in their admissions processes — is that not just a tacit endorsement of aristocracy?” 

Stanford’s annual admissions report in 2020 found that 17.8% of Stanford admits were either legacy students or children of donors. An elite college education is a powerful tool for upward social mobility, but with legacy preference in admissions benefitting white and wealthy applicants, colleges disproportionately work to prevent downward mobility for our nation’s most privileged. 

Ending legacy admissions isn’t just about fairness; it’s also a strategic move at a time when Americans are skeptical that institutions of higher education have their best interests at heart. According to Gallup, trust in colleges and universities is at an all time low, and legacy practices, which are widespread across 500 colleges nationwide, only exacerbate this issue. By perpetuating a system that favors the already privileged, these institutions discourage participation in higher education among underserved communities who feel the odds are stacked against them from the start.

Stanford is designated as a nonprofit and receives immense public subsidies as a result. It’s incumbent upon us to ensure that it earns that privilege by implementing fair admissions policies. It’s time for them to live up to their rhetoric and level the playing field for all students. 

Hearings for AB 1780 are underway and Stanford student voices are essential in passing a bill that’s long overdue. Use your voice to call for the end of legacy admissions practices in California. The future of educational access depends on it. 

Patrick G. Perez ’23 is a member of Class Action and an M.A. Candidate in Sociology. Other members of Class Action provided edits to the article.

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