Education Department Opens Civil Rights Probe Into Harvard Legacy Admissions

The Department of Education has launched a civil rights probe into Harvard University’s policy on legacy admissions in what can be seen as the next step in the legal fight over U.S. college admissions.

Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based nonprofit, filed a federal civil rights complaint earlier this month on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England. The complaint, filed with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, accuses Harvard of engaging in the “discriminatory practice of giving preferential treatment in the admissions process to applicants with familial ties to wealthy donors and alumni.”

The complaint asks the department to deem practices relating to legacy and donor preferences illegal and to order Harvard to stop such practices if it wants to continue receiving funds from the federal government.

LCR said that the Education Department contacted the group on Monday about its request to open an investigation under Title VI into Harvard’s legacy admissions. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and institutions receiving federal financial assistance. An Education Department spokesperson separately confirmed the inquiry to HuffPost on Tuesday but declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing investigation.

Efforts to target the common practice of favoring applicants with “legacy” status in the college admissions process have ramped up since the conservative Supreme Court ruled last month to end race-based affirmative action in college admissions. One of the two universities at the center of that case was Harvard.

Democrats have since coalesced around the idea of eliminating legacy admissions, with Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) announcing a plan to reintroduce their bill aimed at targeting policies that give an unfair advantage to college applicants who are the children of alumni and wealthy donors.

President Joe Biden has not directly supported eliminating legacy admissions. But after the Supreme Court affirmative action ruling, he did argue that the college admissions process does not favor the working class. With studies showing that eliminating legacy preferences would do little to compensate for the loss of affirmative action, however, the White House is also looking at alternative ways to respond to the ruling.

According to the LCR complaint, nearly 70% of Harvard’s donor-related and legacy applicants are white. Donor-related applicants are almost seven times more likely to be admitted than non-donor-related applicants, and legacy applicants are almost six times more likely to be admitted.

A study released Monday by Harvard and Brown researchers found that wealthy students were twice as likely to be admitted to elite colleges as their lower- or middle-income counterparts with similar standardized test scores.

“There’s no birthright to Harvard. As the Supreme Court recently noted, ‘eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.’ There should be no way to identify who your parents are in the college application process,” said LCR Executive Director Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal.

“Why are we rewarding children for privileges and advantages accrued by prior generations?” he continued. “Your family’s last name and the size of your bank account are not a measure of merit, and should have no bearing on the college admissions process.”