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After Affirmative action struck down, Legacy Admissions at Harvard challenged


Following the jarring decision by the Supreme Court ending affirmative action in college admissions, 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 the mostly white children of alumni.

Legacy admissions is the practice of giving admissions priority to the children of alumni. The court’s ruling says colleges must ignore the race of applicants, activists point out, but schools can still give a boost to the children of alumni and donors. 

Records revealed that 70% of Harvard’s donor-related and legacy applicants are white, and being a legacy student makes an applicant roughly six times more likely to be admitted. 

Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit based in Boston, filed the civil rights complaint on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England, alleging that Harvard’s admissions system violates the Civil Rights Act. Backlash against the practice has been building in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision.

The complaint alleges that Harvard’s legacy preference has nothing to do with merit and takes away slots from qualified students of color. 

It asks the U.S. Education Department to declare the practice illegal and force Harvard to abandon it as long as the university receives federal funding. 

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the group’s executive director said, “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.” Opponents say the practice is no longer defensible without affirmative action providing a counterbalance.

President Joe Biden suggested last week that universities should rethink the practice, saying legacy admissions “expand privilege instead of opportunity.” Several Democrats in Congress demanded 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.

Other colleges, including Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University, have already abandoned the legacy admissions practice amid questions about its fairness.

In a separate campaign, the alumni of 30 prestigious colleges are being asked to withhold donations to their schools until they end legacy admissions. Led by Ed Mobilizer, this campaign targets Harvard and other Ivy League schools.  

Harvard data that came to light amid the affirmative action case that landed before the Supreme Court is a source for which these groups are drawing information that has been placed in a complaint and submitted to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Harvard declined to comment on the complaint but reaffirmed its commitment to the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences,” the university said in a prepared statement.

“A spot given to a legacy or donor-related applicant is a spot that becomes unavailable to an applicant who meets the admissions criteria based purely on his or her own merit,” according to the complaint. If legacy and donor preferences were removed, it adds, “more students of color would be admitted to Harvard.”

An Associated Press survey of the nation’s most selective colleges last year found that legacy students in the freshman class ranged from 4% to 23%. At four schools — Notre Dame, USC, Cornell and Dartmouth — legacy students outnumbered Black students.


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