Colorado banned legacy admissions at its public colleges. Two years later, the impact is unclear.

A photo of red brick buildings with mountains in the background
The University of Colorado Boulder stopped using legacy admissions in 2021. (beklaus / Getty Images)

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling prohibiting race-conscious admissions has led to calls to ban another form of preference — legacy admissions — in pursuit of more inclusive campuses.

In 2021, Colorado became the first state to ban legacy admissions — the process of giving an admissions edge to children of alumni — at public universities. The goal was to help admit a more diverse student body.

At CU Boulder, the state’s flagship, admissions for students who are the first in their families to attend college increased in 2022, but slightly fewer students of color were admitted.

At Mines, the state’s most selective public college, the school admitted more students of color, about the same number of first-generation students, and fewer women in 2022 — but the school accepted and enrolled a more diverse class in 2023.

The trends at Mines and CU Boulder paint a fuzzy picture of whether banning legacy admissions elsewhere would increase campus diversity or provide more opportunity for students from marginalized backgrounds.

Complicating the picture: Colorado public universities changed several other policies at the same time, including making test scores such as the SAT and ACT exams optional and expanding recruitment in diverse communities. These changes have affected who applied, how many students were accepted, and who ended up on campus.

Admissions offices at the two universities said they want to show more commitment to diversifying their campuses in addition to banning legacy admissions. They report they’re facing more competition from other schools with lower tuition or more financial aid. They’re also battling perceptions about whether a campus is welcoming if there is not as much diversity among the students.

“Schools are more aggressive with what they’re doing,” said Lori Kester, Mines’ associate provost for enrollment management. “People think the writing’s on the wall as the population dwindles. People in higher ed are all going after the same students.”

Earlier this month, the Biden administration encouraged colleges and universities to review their admissions policies, including ending the use of legacy preferences. The Office of Civil Rights is investigating whether legacy preferences constitute discrimination. Democrats in Congress have also introduced legislation that would bar schools with legacy admissions from participating in federal financial aid.

Most of Colorado’s public colleges and universities admit the majority of students that apply. CU Boulder and Mines are more selective.

In 2022, CU Boulder applications were up in 2022 to about 54,000, or about 10,500 more applications than in 2020. The school accepted about 79% of students who applied that year.

About 77% of all students of color were accepted — a slight decrease from 81% in 2020. At the same time, first-generation acceptance rates increased two points to 73%.

At Mines, the state’s engineering school, overall applications were down in 2022 to about 11,360 applications, or a decrease of about 1,300 applications from 2020. The school accepted about 57% of all applicants — up from 55% in 2020. 

Mines admitted 54% of students of color who applied, an increase of 3.4 points from 2020. First-generation students were accepted at a 40% rate, about the same as in 2020. 

Women applicants — who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math fields — were accepted at a 65% rate in 2022, down two points from 2020.

In 2023, the school’s admissions rates increased among all students to 59%. Acceptance rates increased among students of color to 58%, first-generation students to 42.5%, and women to 66%.

The school also enrolled more students of color, first-generation students, and women.

Admissions numbers for CU Boulder in 2023 are not yet available.

More states considering a ban

No major research exists about the impact of banning legacy admissions, according to Thomas Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. 

Several other state legislatures are considering a ban, including New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, he said. Private colleges, however, have pushed back because they see legacy admissions as a way to get students with ties to the university to apply, encourage donations, and build community, Harnisch said.

Colorado’s two premier private colleges, Colorado College and the University of Denver, still consider alumni relations in their admissions decisions.

After CU Boulder ended legacy preferences voluntarily, both CU Boulder and Mines supported legislation banning legacy preferences statewide.

But both schools’ administrators said it’s difficult to identify any one change as the catalyst for whether a student applies or is admitted.

In 2021, Mines and CU Boulder backed legislation to make the ACT and SAT optional in admissions. At the same time, school officials said they increased recruitment efforts and college-readiness programs. 

In practice, neither Mines nor CU Boulder weighed legacy as the sole determining factor in admissions. Banning legacy preference sent more of a message to students, said Jennifer Ziegenfus, CU Boulder assistant vice chancellor for admissions.

Ziegenfus said student perception about legacy admissions was “that the student who doesn’t have a family member who went there is already starting from behind and they have to play catch up.”

‘Welcome as many students as possible into our community’

The test-optional change allowed Mines to signal to students that admissions offices want to know more about the whole student, not just a test, said Jen Gagne, interim executive director of admissions. She added that she wants students to know that even after the ban on race-conscious admissions, they should showcase who they are in personal essays.

“We want to make sure that students are challenging themselves in the classroom,” Gagne said. “But we want to know about you. We are looking for problem solvers for the future and that requires students from all backgrounds.”

CU Boulder has also started to recruit more in rural areas and hired Spanish recruiters to better reach students, Ziegenfus said.

The goal has been to spread the message that the state’s flagship institution is for all students in the state, and Spanish recruiters help not only students, but families see why CU Boulder is an option, she said. The school has also had more students in recent years take advantage of Colorado’s free college application days, when Colorado students can apply to colleges for free in October.

At Mines, leaders have wanted its student body to look more like the state’s demographics

Mines has placed more focus on pre-college programs that prepare students for science, technology, engineering, and math courses, including a new program at Lakewood’s Alameda International Jr./Sr. High, Kester said.

The school is also working more closely with high school counselors to get students early math exposure because the school requires students to have a strong background in the subject. The school also has pushed for alternative pathways to get students to Mines, such as transfer options from the state’s community colleges.

Both schools also face increased competition from out-of-state schools, which has caused pressure on who does and doesn’t show up on campus. That’s especially an issue during a time when more students worry about the cost of college. 

Wealthier schools can do more to subsidize a student’s education, Kester said, which has caused some to look elsewhere. Some out-of-state public schools have lower overall tuition rates even when compared to Colorado’s in-state tuition or can provide financial aid to offset costs.

Ziegenfus said she hopes students of color know they have a place despite the school not being able to consider race any longer. Mines did not. CU Boulder asked about race in admissions but it wasn’t a determining factor.

She added admissions officers are looking for ways to get them an acceptance letter.

“It is the goal of most institutions across the state to be able to welcome as many students as possible into our community,” Ziegenfus said. “Whatever efforts we can make to knock down these barriers — perceived or otherwise — it’s always going to be at the root of our mission.”

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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