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Students walk to and from classes on the campus of the University of Colorado, in Boulder, Colo., Monday April 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Two years after Colorado became the first state to ban legacy admissions at its public colleges and universities, the institutions say the prohibition did more to improve perception than change practice.

That’s because they say they didn’t really consider legacy status to begin with. But that shift in public perception of the college admissions process has still been important, admissions leaders say.

When students are asked if they’re a legacy applicant — if they have a relative who has graduated from a college or university — their answer is something they have no control over, said Jennifer Ziegenfus, assistant vice chancellor for admissions at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And if the answer is “no,” that could stop some students from even applying.

“They know they are already put at a disadvantage,” she said. 

Colorado appears to remain the only state that has banned legacy admissions at its public colleges and universities, though legislators in other parts of the country — like New York and Massachusetts — have considered following suit. That’s despite college admissions being back in the national spotlight following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June that race-conscious admissions processes are unlawful.

The end of affirmative action has placed more attention on legacy admissions. Harvard University, for instance, is facing a federal investigation into its legacy admissions policies.

CU Boulder stopped considering legacy status a year before the legislature passed House Bill 1173 in 2021, which banned the practice at all of the state’s colleges and universities. CU says it has since seen an uptick in applications from first-generation students and minorities. 

The Marv Kay Stadium, seen on Dec. 8, 2022, at the Colorado School of Mines campus in Golden. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Some of that data could have been affected by another admissions-related change in Colorado. In 2020, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill allowing colleges and universities to become “test optional” for one year, meaning they could allow students to submit applications without SAT or ACT scores. 

The following year, the legislature and Polis made the option permanent. All the state’s public universities opted in. 

Other public schools, including the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, haven’t seen any change in application trends.

“Legacies are still very much welcome,” said Jen Gagne, interim executive director of admissions for the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. “But the big thing is we don’t want students who don’t have those family connections thinking like ‘Oh it’s going to be harder for me to get in.’”

Sen. Kyle Mullica, D-Thornton, a first-generation college student who graduated from the University of Denver, was a lead sponsor of House Bill 1173. The change may just need more time to take effect as communities learn about it, he said. 

“It takes time to get over that rhetoric being passed down and spread within a community,” he said.

When introduced in 2021, the bill wasn’t met with fierce opposition from state universities, Mullica said. One school, Metropolitan State University of Denver, even supported the measure.

“The feedback that we got from a lot of universities was that they weren’t doing this and it wasn’t an issue,” Mullica said. “But they bought into it, and they understood that this bill was the right thing to do.”

The admissions process both before and after the ban on legacy policies remains opaque, as few people have a look into how much weight is given to applicants with family connections. It’s also possible for candidates to indicate legacy status in other parts of their application. 

Some schools voiced concerns about the decision impacting alumni donations, Mullica said. But at Mines and CU Boulder, there doesn’t appear to have been an effect. 

While the University of Colorado at Boulder’s alumni donations dipped in 2021, they bounced back and have risen since then, according to financial records provided by the university. 

Private schools

Mullica hoped when the bill was signed that Colorado’s private colleges and universities would follow suit in dropping the legacy question on their applications. So far, that hasn’t happened — including at the senator’s alma mater.

The University of Denver still asks its applicants if they had a parent or sibling who attended the school, said Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor of enrollment at the school. He said, however, that legacy status is a minimal factor in their application process and that it only affects about 20 to 30 applicants per year.

“The law was never necessary. No one was using legacy status inappropriately,” he said. “Maybe it looks good publicly that we have this (law), but behind the curtain, nothing inappropriate was happening to begin with.”

Rinehart called the state bill a “sad result,” adding that it takes away the ability for admissions counselors to use their professional judgment in admitting students. In Rinehart’s view, considering legacy status can actually help people from minority backgrounds get a “second look” from admissions staff as more students from those backgrounds have family members who have attended universities and colleges.


“So now that we have families of color applying for admission, why would we suddenly not want to consider legacy admission? That, to me, seems even more unfair,” he said.

Colorado College in Colorado Springs, another private school, said they’re in the process of reevaluating their legacy admissions protocol.

“While legacy status — or other ties to the college — has played a minor role in a small number of decisions each year, we are cognizant of the national landscape surrounding selective college admission,” Mark Hatch, the college’s vice president for enrollment, said in a statement to The Sun.

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter in Douglas County for Colorado Community...