U of Kansas Turns to Legacies to Boost Enrollment

Nearly one in four students at the University of Kansas has a parent or grandparent who also went to the university. And as the school grapples with four straight years of declining enrollment, officials and the Kansas University Alumni Association hope to attract more of these so-called “legacy” students.

“Our legacy students are the easiest ones to sell on KU,” Joy Maxwell, the new director of legacy relations at the alumni association, told the Lawrence Journal World.

Maxwell plans to heavily recruit potential legacy students and call on on alumni to better promote the school. A scholarship program established by the university in 2009 offers highly qualified out-of-state legacy students as much as $46,700 to attend the universityy. But legacy applicants don't get any leg up in the admissions process.

"There are lots of public institutions with legacy preferences,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, who edited the book, “Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions.” Kahlenberg says that legacy programs tend to give a boost to wealthier students who are white. As the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether colleges can use racial preferences in admissions to build a more diverse student body, Kahlenberg says that doing away with legacy preferences is one way that colleges could level the playing field for minority students and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Nationally, 35 percent of public colleges say they assign at least some importance to “alumni relations” in admission decisions, according to a 2010 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Ohio State University is not among those, says Vern Granger, its associate vice president and director of admissions, who doesn't track whether applicants are legacies. But his previous employer, the Universsity of Tennessee, did. “It played a very minimal part in the admissions process,” he says.

Some universities have abolished the practice. The University of California System ended legacy preferences in 1996, as have public universities in Georgia and Texas A & M, according to Kahlenberg.

But Kansas officials say its focus on legacies, who don't have any advantage in the admissions process, is different.

“I would not say that our preference is akin to private schools, where you have this sort of foot-in-the-door,” says Jennifer Sanner, an alumni association spokeswoman. “We have a tradition here of families sending their kids back to the hill; it's something that the university values.”

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