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 the mostly white children of alumni.
It’s the latest effort in a growing push against legacy admissions, the practice of giving admissions priority to the children of alumni. Backlash against the practice has been building in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court’s decision ending affirmative action in college admissions.
Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit based in Boston, filed the suit Monday on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England, alleging that Harvard’s admissions system violates the Civil Rights Act.
“Why are we rewarding children for privileges and advantages accrued by prior generations?” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the group’s executive director. “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. 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.
A separate campaign is urging the alumni of 30 prestigious colleges to withhold donations until their schools end 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 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.
The new lawsuit draws on Harvard data that came to light amid the affirmative action case that landed before the Supreme Court. The 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.
It draws attention to other colleges that have abandoned the practice amid questions about its fairness, including Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University.
The suit 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. Harvard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
“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.”
The suit was filed on behalf of Chica Project, African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network.
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% of last year’s admitted students had family ties to alumni or donors. Stanford 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% to 23%. At four schools — Notre Dame, USC, Cornell and Dartmouth — legacy students outnumbered Black students.
Supporters of the policy say it builds an alumni community and encourages donations. A 2022 study of an undisclosed college in the Northeast found that legacy students were more likely to make donations, but at a cost to diversity — the vast majority were white.
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