Harvard Heritage admissions have been investigated by the Department of Education

Harvard Heritage

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Opening a new front in the legal battles over college admissions, the US Department of Education has launched a civil rights investigation into Harvard’s legacy admissions policies.

Top colleges’ preferential treatment for the children of their alumni, who are often white, has faced increased scrutiny since the Supreme Court last month struck down the use of affirmative action as a tool to boost the presence of students of color.

The department notified Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based nonprofit, on Monday that it is investigating the group’s allegation that the university “discriminates on the basis of race by using donor preferences and inheritance in the college admissions process.”

A spokesman for the Department of Education confirmed that its Office of Civil Rights had opened an investigation into Harvard University. The agency declined to comment.

The complaint was filed earlier this month on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England. The group argued that students with ancestral ties are seven times more likely to be accepted to Harvard, could make up nearly a third of the class and be about 70% white. For the class of 2019, about 28% of the class were legacies with a parent or close relative who went to Harvard.

“Qualified and highly deserving applicants of color are harmed as a result, as admission slots are instead awarded to overwhelmingly white applicants who capitalize on Harvard heritage and donor preferences,” the group said in a statement. “Worse, this preferential treatment has nothing to do with the merit of the applicant. Instead, it is an unfair, unearned advantage that is awarded solely based on the family into which the applicant was born.”

A Harvard spokesperson said Tuesday that the university has been reviewing its admissions policies to ensure compliance with the law since the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action.

“As this work continues, and moving forward, Harvard remains dedicated to opening doors to opportunity and doubling down on our efforts to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to apply for admission,” said the spokesperson.

Ending legacy preferences is “one of the many steps Harvard and other universities can take to increase access, diversity, and equity in admissions,” said Jane Sugen Bok, a board member of the Alliance for a Diverse Harvard University, which includes alumni, students, and staff.

Last week, Wesleyan University in Connecticut announced that it would end its policy of giving preferential treatment in admissions to those whose families have historical ties to the school. Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, said a student’s “legacy status” had played a minimal role in admissions processes, but would now be phased out entirely.

In recent years, schools including Amherst College in Massachusetts, Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland have also eliminated old admissions.

Legacy policies have been called into question after the Supreme Court’s decision last month banning affirmative action and any consideration of race in college admissions. Conservative majorities in court have effectively overturned cases going back 45 years, forcing higher education institutions to look for new ways to achieve student diversity.

NAACP President and CEO Derek Johnson said he commends the Department of Education for taking steps to ensure that the higher education system “works for every American, not just for a privileged few.”

Every talented and qualified student deserves the opportunity to attend the college of their choice. Affirmative action exists to support this idea. “The acknowledgments of the legacy are there to undermine it,” he said.

A study led by researchers from Harvard and Brown and published Monday found that affluent students were twice as likely to be accepted into elite schools as their low- or middle-income counterparts with similar standardized test scores.

The study looked at household income and admissions data at the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the University of Chicago, and found that outdated admissions policies were a contributing factor to the advantage enjoyed by higher-income students at these schools. The other two factors were athletic employment and extracurricular qualifications, which are stronger when students attend affluent private high schools.


Associated Press reporters Annie Ma and Gary Fields contributed from Washington, D.C

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