University of Colorado Boulder's campus. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Under-represented minorities, first-generation students, and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds face numerous obstacles as they attempt to graduate from Colorado higher-education institutions. Consequently, over half of these students enter college and leave with nothing but debt.

As former first-generation students ourselves, we understand many of the impediments students face as they navigate the “hidden curriculum” of higher education. We had to learn what terms like “office hours,” “registrar’s office,” “co-requisite” and “FAFSA” meant — terms that other students who had family members attend college were accustomed to.

While we were fortunate to graduate, many of our friends who had similar backgrounds to us did not.

Rep. Kyle Mullica and Sen. Brittany Pettersen

The Colorado legislature has taken multiple steps to help historically marginalized students succeed in higher education. Over the last few years, we supported students farthest from opportunity by increasing funding to school counselors to ensure all students complete the FAFSA and obtain the resources they are entitled to, ensured students regardless of immigration status are eligible for state financial aid, and reformed the system of remedial classes in higher education

While there is still a long way to go, we have unequivocally moved in the right direction. But the inequities faced by many of our students are multi-faceted and begin long before a student sets foot on a college campus. 

Therefore, we recently introduced House Bill 1173, to ban legacy admissions preferences in public higher-education institutions.

Currently, many four-year institutions in Colorado ask applicants what family connections the prospective student has with the institution and use that answer as part of the admissions criteria. 

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Some of these questions ask for the names of the specific family members and how they are connected to the institution. Additionally, some institutions give “fee waivers” for students who have family connections.

This practice of giving preference to students who have a family connection to a particular higher-education institution is discriminatory in nature and is a concrete example of systemic inequity. 

While alumni information is perhaps important information to gather for certain reasons (such as fundraising), it should not be collected during the admissions process when decisions are being made about who is accepted and who is denied.

Giving preferential treatment to students who have family connections to an institution hurts students who are first generation, immigrants – both documented and undocumented – and students from systemically marginalized communities who may not have had the ability to form family connections to higher education institutions. Additionally, it provides no utility as to whether a student will be successful at the institution. 

Additionally, students who do not have family connections to a school feel a sense of dread as they navigate how to answer this question, knowing their answer will be a factor in the application process. 

We have heard from constituents who were concerned about how to answer these questions and how these questions were relevant to whether their child was prepared to attend college. What will it mean if I leave this question blank? How much weight do these questions have on my application? Am I expected to have family connections to the university I am applying for?

In a state where students in poverty have not increased their rate of attending or completing college, we should not perpetuate a policy that puts a thumb on the scale for those with privilege and connections. 

Instead, we hope higher-education institutions will replace family connections in their admissions criteria with more holistic measures to judge whether a student should be accepted.

This is by no means the largest layer of inequity in the higher education space. A lack of state funding and an inequitable K-12 system are much larger drivers of inequity. Nonetheless, all systems of inequity that negatively impact our most marginalized students, no matter how large or small, should be dismantled. 

We are proud to have the support of the University of Colorado Boulder, University of Northern Colorado, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and other higher-education institutions across the state whose officials agree that this system perpetuates inequities and should not play a role in the admissions process.  

By not allowing family connections to play a role in college admissions, we hope to create a more equitable admissions process and level the playing field for students from underrepresented backgrounds. It is a small but necessary step to create a more inclusive higher education system in Colorado.

Kyle Mullica, Democrat of Northglenn, represents District 34 in Adams County in the Colorado House of Representatives. Brittany Pettersen, Democrat of Lakewood, represents District 22 in Jefferson County in the state Senate.

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