José Luis Magana/AP
WASHINGTON – A civil rights group is challenging legacy admissions at Harvard University, saying the practice discriminates against students of color by giving an unfair boost to alumni’s mostly white children.
The practice of prioritizing alumni’s children has faced increasing pushback in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action in higher education. The NAACP added its weight to the effort on Monday, asking more than 1,500 colleges and universities to equalize admissions conditions, including by ending legacy admissions.
The civil rights complaint was filed Monday by Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based nonprofit, on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England, alleging that Harvard’s admissions system violates the Civil Rights Act.
« Why do we reward children for privileges and advantages accrued by previous generations? » said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the group. « Your family 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. »
Opponents argue that the practice is no longer defensible without affirmative action providing a counterweight. The court’s ruling says colleges must ignore the race of applicants, activists stress, but schools can still give a boost to the children of alumni and donors.
The complaint, filed with the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office, draws on Harvard data that emerged during the affirmative action that came before the Supreme Court. Records have revealed that 70 percent of Harvard donor and legacy applicants are white, and being a legacy student makes an applicant about six times more likely to be admitted.
It draws attention to other colleges that have dropped the practice amid questions about its fairness, including Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University.
The complaint alleges that Harvard’s legacy preference has nothing to do with merit and takes away places from qualified students of color. He is asking the US Department of Education to outlaw the practice and force Harvard to abandon it as long as the university receives federal funding.
« A seat awarded to a bequest or donor applicant is a seat that becomes unavailable to an applicant who meets admissions criteria based solely on his or her merits, » according to the complaint. If inheritance and donor preferences were removed, he adds she, « more black students would be admitted to Harvard. »
Harvard has said it will not comment on the complaint.
« Last week, the University reaffirmed its commitment to the fundamental principle that profound and transformative teaching, learning and research depend on a community made up of people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and lived experiences, » the university said in a prepared statement. « As we said, in the weeks and months ahead, the University will determine how to preserve our core values, consistent with the Court’s new precedent. »
The complaint was filed on behalf of the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England and the Greater Boston Latino Network.
Also on Monday, the NAACP launched a campaign to get colleges across the nation to promote campus diversity. Group called on 532 public and 1,134 private colleges and universities to end inheritance preferences, eliminate « racially biased » entrance exams, recruit diverse faculty, and support low-income and first-generation students with scholarships and tutoring, among other steps.
« We hope our nation’s institutions will stand by us in embracing diversity, no matter what, » said Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP. « Regardless, the NAACP will continue to advocate, sue and mobilize to ensure that every Black American has access to the resources and opportunities they need to thrive. »
This effort joins another campaign urging alumni of 30 prestigious colleges to hold back donations until their schools finish legacy admissions. That initiative, led by Ed Mobilizer, also targets Harvard and other Ivy League schools.
President Joe Biden suggested last week that universities should rethink the practice, saying legacy admissions « expand privilege rather than opportunity. »
Several Democrats in Congress have called for an end to the policy in light of the court’s decision, along with Republicans including Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is vying for the GOP presidential nomination.
It’s unclear exactly which schools provide a legacy boost and how much it helps. In California, where state law requires schools to disclose the practice, the University of Southern California reported that 14 percent of students admitted last year had family ties to alumni or donors. Stanford has reported a similar rate.
An Associated Press survey of the nation’s most selective colleges last year found that legacy students in the freshman class ranged from 4 percent to 23 percent. At four schools—Notre Dame, USC, Cornell, and Dartmouth—traditional students outnumbered black students.
Supporters of the policy say it builds an alumni community and encourages donations. A 2022 study of a secret college in the Northeast found that legacy students were more likely to donate, but at a cost to diversity: The vast majority were white.