According to a group that alleges the practice is discriminatory, the U.S. Department of Education has initiated an investigation into Harvard University’s admissions policies from the past. Monday, the department informed Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based nonprofit, that it was conducting an investigation into the group’s claim that the university “discriminates on the basis of race by using benefactor and legacy preferences for undergraduate admissions process.”
Since the Supreme Court struck down the use of affirmative action to diversify college campuses a month ago, the preferential treatment of children of alumni by elite colleges has come under renewed scrutiny. The court’s conservative majority effectively overturned cases dating back 45 years, compelling higher education institutions to seek new means of achieving student diversity.
A spokesperson for the Education Department confirmed that its Office of Civil Rights has initiated an investigation at Harvard, but declined further comment.
However, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, President Joe Biden has “made it abundantly clear that legacy admissions hinder our ability to build diverse student bodies.”
Complaint Challenges Harvard’s Legacy Admissions: Black and Latino Community Organizations Speak Out
Earlier this month, the complaint was filed on behalf of Black and Latino community organizations in New England. The group argued that students with legacy relations are up to seven times more likely to be admitted to Harvard, that they can make up nearly a third of a cohort, and that roughly 70 percent of the student body is white. About 28% of the Class of 2019 were descendants of parents or other relatives who attended Harvard.
“We are pleased that the Department of Education has taken swift action to launch this investigation,” the organization said in an email statement. “Harvard should follow the lead of an increasing number of colleges and universities, such as Amherst, MIT, Johns Hopkins, the University of California, and, most recently, Wesleyan, and voluntarily abandon these unfair and undeserved preferences.”
Since the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action, a Harvard spokesperson said the university has been evaluating its admissions policies to assure compliance with the law.
“As this work continues and as we move forward, Harvard remains committed to opening doors to opportunity and to redoubling our efforts to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to apply,” a spokesperson said.
Eliminating legacy preferences is “one of many steps that Harvard and other universities can take to increase access, diversity, and equity in admissions,” according to Jane Sujen Bock, a board member of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, composed of alumni, students, and staff.
Last month’s Supreme Court decision prohibiting affirmative action and any consideration of race in college admissions has cast doubt on legacy policies. The conservative majority of the court effectively overturned cases dating back 45 years, compelling higher education institutions to seek new methods to attain student diversity.
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson praised the Department of Education for its efforts to ensure that the higher education system “serves all Americans, not just a select few.”
“Each talented and qualified pupil should have the chance to attend the institution of their choice. The existence of Affirmative Action supported this notion. “The purpose of legacy admissions is to undermine it,” he said.
Sarah Hinger, senior staff attorney for the Racial Justice Program of the ACLU, stated that she was unaware of the details of the Harvard program, but that “in general, legacy admissions tend to benefit white people and wealthy people disproportionately.”
“Systemic racism and inequality have allowed some individuals to leave legacies for future generations, while systemic racism has deprived many families of color of educational opportunities. She continued, “They are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin.”
A study conducted by Harvard and Brown researchers and released on Monday found that affluent students were twice as likely to be admitted to elite institutions as their lower- or middle-income peers with comparable standardized test scores.
The study examined family income and admissions data from Ivy League institutions, Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the University of Chicago.It was discovered that legacy admissions policies contributed to the advantages enjoyed by high-income students at these institutions. The other two factors were athletic recruitment and extracurricular credentials, which are more prevalent at affluent private high schools.