U.S. Department of Education investigating legacy admissions at Harvard

Civil rights inquiry into Harvard’s legacy admissions practices comes after a Supreme Court ruling that brought down affirmative action

On July 25, the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into the legacy admissions policy at Harvard University. This move comes after the Supreme Court ruled affirmative action unconstitutional on June 29, prompting further scrutiny of the college admissions process.

Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling was released, three Boston-based groups, the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network, filed a complaint with the Department of Education against Harvard, alleging that Harvard's consideration of legacy in admissions prefers relatives of alumni and donors and discriminates against Black, Hispanic, Asian, and other minority applicants. 

"It is imperative that the federal government act now to eliminate this unfair barrier that systematically disadvantages students of color," Michael Kippins, a litigation fellow at Lawyers for Civil Rights, said when the complaint was filed.

The inquiry could culminate in a protracted legal battle that could end up once more in the hands of the Supreme Court. Nicole Rura, a Harvard spokeswoman, said that in the wake of the investigation, Harvard was reviewing its admissions policies and added that "Harvard remains dedicated to opening doors to opportunity and to redoubling our efforts to encourage students from many different backgrounds to apply for admission."

Harvard's legacy practice was investigated in the 1980s by the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights in the context of discrimination against Asian American applicants. A statement of findings from the 1988-90 probe said that the investigation "revealed clear evidence of a 'tip' for legacies and recruited athletes' but said that Harvard's legacy preference was not in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on race.

Legacy admissions have been a long-standing practice at many of the nation's most prestigious universities, including Stanford, Yale, and Princeton. Wesleyan University, a selective private college in Connecticut, recently ended its legacy preference after the Supreme Court decision. 

MIT does not consider an applicant's legacy status in the admissions process, according to the MIT Admissions website.