Ensuring Fairness in College Admissions: Rethinking Recruitment, Demonstrated Interest Strategies, Early Decision, and Legacy Admissions

This brief offers college leaders and admissions officials clear recommendations to ensure that their campus admissions are fair by rethinking recruitment strategies and demonstrated interest practices, and eliminating early decision and legacy admission. These practices too often are barriers to the economic mobility a college degree can offer. For all Americans to have access to a valuable college education, there must be a thorough review of current admissions practices and, most importantly, the courage to change them in ways that prioritize equity.

With an estimated two-thirds of jobs in the U.S. requiring at least some postsecondary education, access to college is a vital step toward economic stability for many individuals and their families. Every person, regardless of race, background, or circumstance, deserves the opportunity to pursue this stability and the host of benefits postsecondary education affords. Furthermore, our nation’s economic competitiveness relies on colleges and universities educating a strong and diverse workforce to fill the jobs of the future.

In this brief, which draws on a thorough review of existing research, original data analysis, and conversations with institutional leaders and experts, we urge colleges and universities to address longstanding inequities in college access by rethinking four policies and practices: recruitment strategies, demonstrated interest policies, early admission deadlines, and legacy admission policies. We focus on selective public and private institutions because they often provide a strong chance of success — specifically, degree completion — for historically underrepresented and excluded students, but also employ policies and practices that limit these students’ chances for admission. For example, policies such as legacy admission favor students who are not first in their family to attend college. Historically, legacy admission was used at several Ivy League colleges to favor white Christian students and purposely exclude Jewish students and non-white Black, AIAN, and other minoritized students. Other practices, such as admitting students based on their demonstrated interest in a particular college, or early decision admission, which requires an early, binding commitment to a school that is the candidate’s top choice, may seem neutral, but they perpetuate inequities, in practice, by advantaging students who attend well-resourced high schools with sufficient college counseling support, substantial financial resources, and family members with experience navigating the college admissions process.