Education Department To Investigate Legacy Admissions at Harvard


Following a formal complaint filed by the non-profit Lawyers for Civil Rights, the U.S. Department of Education is opening an investigation into the use of legacy admissions by Harvard University.

According to the New York Times, the department released a statement indicating that the federal government agreed to look into how legacy admissions create an unfair playing field for prospective students which reads in part: “…the Office for Civil Rights can confirm that there is an open investigation of Harvard University under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We do not comment on open investigations.”

Following the Supreme Court’s decision to dismantle affirmative action policies in higher education, legacy admissions—the preferential consideration of applicants who have had immediate family members graduate from an institution—has been under increased scrutiny. Johns Hopkins University ended the practice in 2014 and has seen more diversity in the socioeconomic makeup of its campus as a result.

Harvard is among the number of elite, East coast universities that still use the policy, but there is a growing consensus that diversifying college campuses is incongruent with the use of legacy admissions. 

NPR interviewed Wesleyan University President Michael Roth following the university’s decision to end legacy admissions. Roth indicated that a major roadblock to ending the policy among those selective colleges is the fear that they would lose funding from alumni but Roth thinks most alumni will see the value of a level playing field.

There is a view that legacy admissions essentially function as affirmative action for white students, which is also echoed in the complaint that Lawyers for Civil Rights filed.

The ACLU believes that the elimination of legacy admissions can lead to a more equitable admissions process, as it in a 2022 post titled “How Ending Legacy Admissions Can Help Achieve Greater Education Equity: “Legacy preferences reinforce long standing economic, social, and educational disparities between white students and BIPOC students by shutting them out of spots in universities and further privileging wealthy, white students with more access to resources and institutional connections.”

It is expected that legacy admissions will end at some point based on the momentum against the policy. The practice received increased attention during the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision; justices on both sides made arguments that seemed as though they viewed the policy as an unfair and archaic one. This is reflected in the fact that Democrats who were critical of the affirmative action ruling agreed with Republicans who celebrated the end of affirmative action, regarding the practice of legacy admissions. Both parties essentially seem to see legacy admissions as antithetical to the ideas of fairness and equity.

Moreover, it is irrational to oppose affirmative action under the pretext of giving special treatment to underrepresented groups during the admission process, while simultaneously permitting legacy admissions for individuals who are not part of these groups. 

RELATED CONTENT: Affirmative Action Opponents Want U.S. Supreme Court To Take Up Harvard Case

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