DOE Looking Into How Harvard Admits Students

Harvard's legacy, donor admissions in the spotlight after SCOTUS ruling on affirmative action
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 26, 2023 8:25 AM CDT
DOE Launches Inquiry Into Harvard's Legacy Admissions
Students are seen on the Harvard campus on April 27, 2022, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.   (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

A landmark ruling last month by the US Supreme Court struck a blow against using affirmative action in college admissions, and soon after that decision, murmurs began intensifying on an adjacent controversy—legacy and donor admissions. Now, one of the Ivy Leagues is under the microscope over the practice: The US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has started an inquiry into what role alumni and donor preferences play in Harvard University's acceptances, and whether these admissions discriminate against qualified potential students who aren't white or affluent, reports the New York Times.

The DOE confirms that an investigation is underway under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In Harvard's case, preference is doled out to student athletes, as well as kids of alumni, donors, and faculty and staff—a group that makes up about 5% of applicants but 30% of those admitted. Court papers note that of those applicants, nearly 70% are white. Both sides of the political aisle have slammed the practice: Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has deemed it "affirmative action for the privileged," while GOP Sen. Tim Scott has called for the nixing of "preferential treatment for legacy kids," per the Hill. The AP notes the federal probe follows a complaint filed earlier this month by three Black and Latino community groups in New England.

The inquiry also comes on the heels of a study released Monday by Harvard researchers that found wealthy applicants were two times as likely to be admitted to elite schools than middle- or lower-income students with similar standardized test scores. A Pew Research Center poll last year indicated that 75% of surveyed adults believed legacy status shouldn't be a factor in college admissions, and some big-name schools—including Wesleyan, Amherst, and Johns Hopkins—have already stopped the practice.

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In the past, top schools had defended legacy admissions, noting it helped build a "sense of loyalty and belonging," and also to encourage alumni to donate, per the Times. A Harvard spokesman says that the university has launched its own internal review as well, "to assure compliance with the law and to carry forward Harvard's long-standing commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences," per a statement cited by the Harvard Crimson. (More Harvard stories.)

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