The Campanile pokes out above the trees against the sky on a sunny day on the UC Berkeley campus
It took until 2020 for the University of California to explicitly bar campuses from considering students’ connections with donors. File photo: Jerome Paulos

Legacy and donor admissions programs have targets on their backs. The Supreme Court ruling banning affirmative action in higher education has brought heightened scrutiny to the practice of giving preferential treatment to children of alumni and the ultra-rich.

For the impact of such a ban at a selective university, look no further than UC Berkeley, which ended its legacy and “VIP admissions” programs in 1998. Much like today, the tidal wave of criticism fell on these practices after the affirmative action ban.

At no time in UC’s history did it give preferential treatment to the elite to the same extent as some of the nation’s most selective private colleges like Harvard and Stanford, where new research shows that students with an alumni parent are four times more likely to get in as the average applicant with similar test scores.

But for years, UC did allow legacy applicants from outside of California to meet the lower admissions standards of in-state students. And for most of the 1980s and ’90s, UC Berkeley maintained a committee to review applications for admissions at the request of the elite.

In 1998, facing pressure from the governor and the state legislature after the committee was exposed in the press, the UC regents denounced the role of money and politics in admissions and, a few months later, stopped giving out-of-state legacy applicants a leg up. But it took until 2020 for the UC to explicitly bar campuses from considering students’ connections with donors, closing a loophole that allowed a few students to be admitted on this basis each year.

Today, selective University of California schools are relatively egalitarian when compared with peer institutions that never changed their ways — though half the UC Berkeley student body still comes from the top 20% of earners, since advantages for the well-off and the ultra-rich stack up well before their applications reach admissions officers. 

Still, UC Berkeley and UCLA tend to enroll fewer ultra-rich students and more low- and middle-income students than other selective schools. At UC Berkeley, 7.3% of its students come from the bottom 20% of earners, more than all but six selective public schools in the country. 

When researchers at Opportunity Insights — a group of Harvard economists studying economic inequality — compared the income levels of enrolled students at nine flagship public universities, they found that students from the top .1% were twice as likely to attend University of Michigan and University of Virginia than the average student with similar scores.

These two selective public schools still consider legacy status in admissions. (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill does too, but the wealthiest students there are not as disproportionately likely to get in, when controlling for SAT scores.)

“The bottom line is that if you have these types of preferences in the admissions process, then you can end up with a lot more rich kids, or at least a lot richer of kids,” said Tyler Ransom, an economics professor at the University of Oklahoma who has studied the role of elite preferences at Harvard.

In contrast, half as many UC Berkeley and UCLA students come from the top .1% than the average student with similar test scores.

In other words, given that wealthy students tend to have higher scores, you would expect college admissions at these schools to skew wealthy. And at UC Berkeley and UCLA, they do, but not to the same extent as you’d expect if you based admissions on SAT scores alone.

Data from Opportunity Insights uses college enrollment and family income between 2001 and 2015. The chart controls for variation in test scores by income.

Giving preference for legacy students layers on top of their many existing advantages and “perpetuates racial and socioeconomic inequities from past generations,” said Mamie Voight, president of Institute for Higher Education Opportunity Policy, which advocates for solutions to inequities in higher ed. It’s the equivalent, she said, of “rolling out the red carpet for legacy students.”

After the ban on affirmative action, the UC began other efforts to diversify the student body on its campuses. In 2001, UC created an admissions guarantee for the top 4% of students in their graduating class, which later grew to the top 9%. The policy was designed to take into account what excellence looks like for students at different high schools across the state. Universities also began recruiting students from high schools that don’t typically send students there and implemented a comprehensive admissions process that took into account students’ many accomplishments, as well as challenges they had overcome.

Together, these policies helped make University of California schools a possibility for many students who would not have considered them an option before. UC spokesperson Ryan King attributed the UC’s success in enrolling a relatively more egalitarian student body to a host of admissions policies enacted under its core mission of “social well-being and economic prosperity of Californians.” 

“The ‘no preferential treatment’ policy is certainly not the sole factor, rather it is a key guardrail that undergirds a comprehensive admissions process,” King wrote in an email.

A chorus of research shows that, even at schools without donor preference policies, wealthy students have a significant advantage in college admissions. 

Test scores tend to rise with family income. The rich have access to better schools, with more comprehensive college counseling, and can pay for private tutoring. Students from wealthy backgrounds can apply early decision, giving them a better chance at getting in, while poorer families often cannot afford to commit to a school before knowing the financial aid package.

Legacy preferences are just one of the advantages that confers benefits onto a wealthier alumni base. 

“I think that it would be very troubling if a lot of schools eliminated their legacy preferences in the wake of affirmative action, and did not also examine all of these other ways in which they are creating barriers to access for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds,” Voight said.

Today, the UC still admits students who do not meet the eligibility requirements laid out by the university through a policy called admission by exception. A 2020 audit report found the requirements a bit redundant, but cited no evidence that exceptions were being made on behalf of the rich or powerful in the ways that have turned heads in decades past.

The “admission by exception” category is governed by strict rules about how many students can be admitted and for what reasons. These students can make up no more than 6% of each class, and up to two-thirds of students admitted through the policy can be from disadvantaged backgrounds. The other third is intended to include students with disabilities, veterans and adult students.

Dozens of prominent powerbrokers asked Cal for admissions favors in 1980s and ’90s

From the early 1980s to 1998, UC Berkeley had a special committee to review admissions requests by donors, politicians and high-ranking UC officials.

The committee fielded hundreds of requests over a period of a few years, though of the 240 applications it reviewed, it intervened on behalf of just 19 of them.

The existence of the committee was revealed by a 1996 Los Angeles Times investigation, published just months after the passage of Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in California.

The LA Times published a list of politically powerful people making special requests, which included then San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, the former finance minister of Taiwan, 28 regents, 17 members of the state legislature and three members of Congress. 

A newspaper headline from LA Times 1996 reads, "UC Berkeley Panel Handles Admission Requests by VIPs"
A 1996 article in the Los Angeles Times exposed a special committee at UC Berkeley that reviewed requests by elites.

Among those implicated in the scandal was Ward Connerly, the Louisiana-born businessman and UC regent who led the campaign for Prop 209. He had asked admissions to review two applicants, both the children of friends.

Connerly denied that he tried to influence the admissions outcomes. “The mere fact that those letters passed through my hands creates the impression that some sort of influence was sought, when in fact none was,” Connerly told the LA Times. Connerly said he had not known of the existence of the committee, was in favor of disbanding it and would not grant the same favor to other friends in the future.

After the LA Times investigation, Governor Pete Wilson and the state legislature stepped in, calling on the university to bar these practices. The regents swiftly limited the right of elected officials or regents to influence admissions decisions, but “development considerations” were a stickier issue. 

When Connerly tried to eliminate outright the role of politics and money in admissions, he failed. The policy that passed two years later left the door open to donor influence using mushy phrasing and a carved-out exception. 

“Admissions motivated by concern for financial, political or other such benefit to the University do not have a place in the admissions process,” the policy affirmed. “If Chancellors elect to admit students outside of the established criteria, the Academic Senate should be consulted.”

The university had to consider declining funds from the state and its increased reliance on private donors. Research shows that legacy students tend to be a financial boon for universities. They donate more after graduating and their families are more likely to be able to pay full tuition.

In 2021-22, UC Berkeley brought in $392 million in private donations, 12% of its funding and a larger share than the university system as a whole, which gets 4% of its money from private gifts. Over the last two decades, the amount of money the university raises through donations has increased, as well its share of the revenue. Across all the UC schools, private donations totaled $1.65 billion that year.

The huge sums gifted by private donors were key to the case made for retaining a legacy admissions policy made by UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Thien before the regents in 1997. The remarks appear to be prepared by then admissions and enrollment director Nina Robinson. 

The argument was that a few preferential admissions tickets were appropriate, even good, if the donations were sufficiently large so as to benefit the rest of the students. A few special students like these could be admitted each year, the argument went, so long as they were prepared to succeed academically and if the students did not take the place of others.

There was also another concern: that elite families wouldn’t take “no” well. An additional document that appears to have been written by Robinson to prepare Thien for the regents’ questions, spelled out the worry: “In the future, we will have to say, ‘I’m sorry, there is nothing I can do.’ Sometimes when I say that to people, they don’t believe me. They think Chancellors are all powerful, so what I am really saying is that I choose not to intervene, because I don’t care about them, I don’t value the contribution they have made to the campus.”

It was not until 2020 that the UC explicitly barred the influence of money and politics in admissions, following the varsity blues scandal revealing a scheme by William “Rick” Singer to get children of wealthy parents into elite schools by rigging SATs or paying coaches to admit the students as athletes.

That year, a state audit found that UC admitted 64 students on the basis of their connections with donors or high-ranking staff, including 42 at UC Berkeley. One student’s family donated thousands to a sports team that helped get him into the college, though he never competed.

UC policy now states plainly that the university “may not consider an applicant’s affiliation(s) with alumni, donors, staff, faculty, or other employees of the University during the admission process.”

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...