Inside the push to end legacy admissions preferences at Stanford

The Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) and other student organizations are pushing the University to end legacy admissions preferences, while the California State Assembly considers a bill that would penalize universities for the practice.

The ongoing push to end legacy and donor preferences comes after last year’s Supreme Court decision to end race-conscious admissions in higher education. The ruling has amplified calls to end legacy admissions nationwide and has already led some institutions, such as Wesleyan University, to formally end the practice.

The bill, AB 1780, would prohibit private universities from giving applicants a legacy or donor preference during the admissions process. Universities that fail to comply would incur a fine equal to the funding they receive from the state-funded Cal Grant program, which provides aid to financially needy students.

Supporters of AB 1780 described legacy and donor preferences in admissions as an unfair advantage that perpetuates inequality.

“We know that legacy applicants are far more likely to be wealthy, and they’re more likely to be white than non-legacies,” said Ryan Cieslikowski ’23, lead organizer of Class Action. “On Stanford’s campus, students are mobilizing to end the practice because it is not reflective of their values.”

A national organization that opposes legacy admissions and corporate career funneling, Class Action has established a presence at Stanford. Student members have advanced their opposition to legacy admissions by launching a community-wide petition, tabling at White Plaza and calling for action in the ASSU. In April, students testified in support of AB 1780 at the State Capitol in Sacramento.

At the same time, opposition to legacy and donor admissions preferences has gained momentum in the ASSU. This month, the Undergraduate Senate (UGS) and Graduate Senate Council (GSC) jointly passed a resolution that expressed support for AB 1780 and encouraged the University to eliminate legacy preferences.

“Those preferences started with exclusionary intentions, and that is what they continue to do,” Diego Kagurabadza ’25, incumbent UGS Chair and ASSU Executive President-elect, told The Daily. “The students who benefit, the families that benefit, are those that really don’t need it.”

Kagurabadza authored and introduced the resolution, which he hopes will pressure the University and Faculty Senate to re-examine admissions policies.

“If the University wants to take its commitment to diversity seriously, then this is the policy it has to support,” he said.

State Assemblymember Phil Ting, who authored and introduced AB 1780 in February, echoed student organizers’ arguments. “This is really about making sure that many of these elite institutions are more equitable in their admissions process,” Ting told The Daily.

Ting introduced a bill similar to AB 1780 in the wake of the 2019 “Varsity Blues” scandal, which exposed a criminal conspiracy among wealthy parents to gain their children admission at top universities.

Although the 2019 bill did not pass the assembly, Ting said that the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard had changed the political landscape, making AB 1780 more likely to succeed. “It doesn’t make sense not to be able to look at race but to still include someone’s wealth in the admissions process,” he said.

An initial version of AB 1780 would have directly revoked universities’ Cal Grant funding, but an amendment to the bill replaced this mechanism with a fine. Ting said that if Stanford chooses to incur the fine, students’ financial aid would not be impacted. “We thought that this was fairer to the student,” he said.

AB 1780 has now passed the Assembly Higher Education committee. If the bill passes in the Assembly by the legislative deadline of May 24, it will move to the State Senate. Governor Gavin Newsom will ultimately decide whether to pass or veto the bill.

The bill would uniquely impact Stanford as one of seven higher education institutions that practice legacy admissions preferences in California. Public universities in the state disavow the practice, unlike Stanford, the University of Southern California (USC), Santa Clara University and four others.

According to the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, 13.8% of Stanford’s autumn 2022 admitted class had legacy or donor connections. It is unclear what portion of students would or would not have been denied admission without their legacy status.

University spokesperson Dee Mostofi wrote to The Daily that Stanford has not taken a position on the bill nor made any policy changes in response. She emphasized that legacy status is one factor in a holistic review process, and that diversity is “critical” to the University’s mission.

“Faculty representatives, admissions offices, and legal counsel are working to assess our admissions process and next steps since last year’s SCOTUS ruling,” Mostofi wrote.

The California assembly bill has motivated increased student advocacy for ending legacy admissions preferences. Numerous undergraduate students involved with Class Action have given testimony, written op-eds and publicly campaigned against the policy at Stanford.

“As a legacy student myself, I find legacy admissions completely abominable,” Sophie Callcott ’24 told The Daily. “It seems like such an obvious agent of inequality and supports an American aristocracy.”

In April, Callcott traveled to Sacramento with other students to testify in support of AB 1780. “Seeing such a mass of students go up to the microphone and say, ‘I’m a legacy student at Stanford, and I’m here to support AB 1780’ … It was really inspiring,” she said.

Students recently formed a branch of “Students for Educational Equity” to target Stanford’s policies. On May 3, the group set up a table in White Plaza and encouraged passersby to sign a petition urging Stanford administrators to abolish legacy preferences. An eye-catching sign on the table stated, “Calling Nepotism Legacy Does Not Make It Okay.”

One tabler, Alyssa Murray ’24, told The Daily that the organization wanted to hear community perspectives and “get the conversation going about ending legacy admissions.”

Murray said the Supreme Court ruling sparked her advocacy. “Whereas affirmative action is to bring people up, legacy admission is to hold people in power,” she said. “As a student of color, I want other students of color to be able to access Stanford. Legacy admissions predominantly favors not just white applicants, but wealthy applicants.”

The Students for Educational Equity petition asks signatories an optional question about their legacy status, offering a brief explanation: “Our campaign gains more significance with more legacies coming out against legacy admissions.”

Nazli Dakad ’24 echoed this perspective. “Being legacy does not preclude someone from supporting this cause,” she said. “It’s us looking forward to see what we want this university to stand for, regardless of if you’ve had a preference.”

Ava DeConcini ’25 noted that her own experience of being a legacy informed her decision to join Class Action. “If there was no legacy admit preference and I didn’t get into Stanford, I would have been fine,” she said. “I would have gone to some other very elite university, I would have gotten an incredible education. I would have had financial security from my family, and I would have gotten to reap all the privileges I have of being white, of being privileged.”

She added that abolishing the practice would alleviate “imposter syndrome” for legacy students who feel they “don’t have the integrity you wish you did at this school.”

Callcott made a similar point. “The numbers show that most legacy students were already competitive applicants,” she said. “Very selfishly, I don’t want people thinking that the only reason I got into a school like Stanford was because my parents went to law school here … I don’t think the accident of my birth should have dictated where I was going to spend the next four very formative years of my life.”

Isaac Nehring ’26, an undergraduate senator and a legacy student, defended legacy and donor preferences in admissions. “There’s a benefit in that the university gets more resources and those resources go to students that can benefit from them, who possibly otherwise might not be able to come,” he said.

Beyond financial support for the University, Nehring said that legacy admits could bring “generational memory and traditions to life, and try to keep those in play.” Nehring added that it was rare for applicants to gain admission based solely on their legacy status.

Organizers disputed arguments concerning institutional loyalty. “Embracing nepotism is not necessary for funding a modern university,” Cieslikowski said. “Look at the endowment. It’s hard to imagine that they don’t have enough money to fund financial aid, without legacy admissions, for a lot more people than they currently do.” He also pointed to MIT and Amherst as financially strong institutions that do not practice legacy admissions.

After the Supreme Court ended race-conscious admissions in 2023, Kagurabadza authored an ASSU resolution condemning the decision. The resolution also expressed opposition to legacy preferences. When it passed in October, Cieslikowski took notice and approached Kagurabadza about building a coalition to oppose legacy preferences at Stanford.

These efforts culminated in a second joint resolution passed last week, which targets legacy and donor preferences and AB 1780. While the fall ASSU resolution remains under review in the Faculty Senate, Kagurabadza hopes the follow-up resolution will emphasize “the urgency of this issue and will help to sway their decision on the particular policy.”

The resolution did not pass unanimously in the UGS — 11 senators voted in favor and three against. Nehring said he opposed it because he saw no urgent need to end legacy preferences.

“I haven’t been presented with any specifics on how legacy admission might be negatively impacting Stanford’s diversity goals,” he said. “There’s a lot of conjecture about how it would impact diversity, but nothing to necessarily back up any perceived malpractice.” He emphasized that he would have supported a resolution which only condemned the Supreme Court ruling.

Kagurabadza, however, saw the resolution as pressing. “We’re in a time where diversity seeking initiatives or diversity seeking policies are under scrutiny, if not being outright prohibited,” he said. “The University should be considering everything in its power to preserve diversity, if not to increase it on campus. One of the strongest ways it can do that is by eliminating legacy or donor preferences.”