Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the federal investigation.
Following last month’s Supreme Court decision to strike down affirmative action, the United States Department of Education has opened an investigation into Harvard University’s preferences for the relatives of alumni and donors when making admissions decisions. The Department’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether such practices are racially discriminatory.
The announcement comes after three Boston-area legal groups — Chica Project, ACEDONE and the Greater Boston Latino Network — filed a formal complaint which argued that Harvard’s practice of extending preferences to so-called legacy admissions illegally discriminated against Black, Hispanic and Asian applicants in favor of wealthy students who were less qualified.
Last week, Wesleyan University ended legacy preference in its admissions process, marking one step that colleges and universities may take to increase racial diversity in the absence of affirmative action. The University declined to comment on the investigation and has yet to release a statement detailing its plans post-Supreme Court decision.
A 2019 National Bureau of Economic Research report which found that over 43% of white students at Harvard are considered ALDC applicants, an acronym referring to athletes, legacies, those on the dean's interest list, and children of faculty and staff. At Princeton, 12.5 percent of the 2022-2023 undergraduate student body comprised legacy admits, according to University spokesperson Ahmad Rizvi.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision, experts have weighed in on possible ways colleges can maintain racial diversity, with some championing the introduction of class-based affirmative action.
Yet in a study cited by Students for Fair Admissions when its case against Harvard was in federal court in 2019, a model projected that the university could only increase racial and socioeconomic diversity through class-based affirmative action if it abandoned all preferences for legacies, applicants on the dean’s or director’s interest lists, and children of faculty or staff. Moreover, the model showed that Harvard would have to implement a “sizable tip” for students based on their economic and geographic indicators of disadvantage.
On the other hand, if racial consideration was removed and preferences for ALDCs remained, the model projected that Black representation in Harvard's incoming class would fall nearly one-third and constitute approximately 10 percent of the class.
Richard Kahlenberg, an education and housing consultant and nonresident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy who for decades has argued in favor of class-based affirmative action, conducted that study. He told The Daily Princetonian that affirmative action in admissions addressed “one half of the equation” and gave “very little consideration to economic disadvantage.”
He noted that the Supreme Court’s decision has made it more difficult to justify “affirmative action for predominantly wealthy, white students” in the form of legacy preferences.
Though the University’s plan remains to be seen, President Christopher Eisgruber has appeared reluctant to end legacy admissions in the past. In a 2022 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Eisgruber claimed that legacy merely works as a tie breaker., adding that “it’s an important part of who we are as an institution that creates a community that persists long after somebody graduates.”
Larry Summers, who recently stepped down as Harvard president, recently came out against legacy admissions, urging colleges to eliminate preference given to children of alumni. Kahlenberg called on Eisgruber to also reconsider his position on legacy admissions.
Ivory Toldson, professor at Howard University and national director of Education Innovation and Research for the NAACP told the ‘Prince’ in an interview that the University will lose its competitive edge if Princeton does not carefully consider how they will face the new legal bounds.
“If Princeton is very rigid in its approach and it causes them to lose very talented African American, Hispanic, Indigenous students, another school… will absorb these students [which is] going to hurt Princeton more than it hurts these students.”
“The fact that we have made race [in admissions] a controversial practice and not legacy just shows you the level of anti-Blackness that is endemic in our society,” Toldson added.
Ending legacy admissions would have some secondary effects on campus. The same 2019 model made by Kahlenberg found that his proposed changes to the admissions process would create a 53 to 71 point decline in average SAT scores. It also found that the proposed admission changes would lead to more students with an intended major in engineering being admitted and fewer with an intended major in the humanities.
In the first year after legacy ended, Amherst saw its share of legacy admits for the Class of 2027 fall by five percent, while the proportion of first generation students rose to 19 percent, the highest in the school’s history.
There has also been legislation taking aim at legacy admissions. In 2021, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed into law a bill that bans “state-supported higher education institutions” from using legacy preferences. In 2022, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Democratic Congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York introduced a bill that would ban institutions participating in federal student aid programs from giving legacy preferences.
Legacy admissions have also faced legal challenges. A 2017 lawsuit filed in federal court by five former undergraduate students accused 16 private colleges of abusing a 1994 law that allowed schools to collaborate in forming a financial aid policy as long as they remained need blind in admissions. The petitioners argue that colleges are putting poorer students at a disadvantage by offering limited spots to wealthier students. The case is still being litigated.
Kalhenberg draws a similar reality to Princeton’s admission process, saying that while it is technically need-blind, “legacy preferences are one way to circumvent that by admitting students who you are likely to know can pay the full tuition.” He added that advantages to athletes also go to students who participate in “unusual sports that are often played in only fairly wealthy high schools.”
Both Kahlenberg and Toldson agree that legacy admissions should not be the University's only strategy to increase diversity however, as Kahlenberg calls it a “low hanging fruit”.
Toldson clarifies that while the ruling says you can't consider race when it comes to admitting students, it does not say anything about recruiting them.
“It doesn't preclude institutions from continuing diversity equity initiatives programs. It doesn't preclude institutions from continuing to recruit diverse students. Another thing that's important is that if you want African Americans to come to your university, you have to demonstrate that you're putting forth a good faith effort to make sure that they're accommodated while they're at your university. So that means you need to recruit talented Black faculty members and staff, you have to make sure that you have a Black student union that has the support and the funding that they need.”
Kahlenberg added that Princeton needs to increase community college transfers and “give breaks to more low income students.”
Still, the issue will continue to be litigated, in the courts and in the public arena. Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the head attorney on the Lawyers for Civil Rights case against Harvard, expressed hope in a comment to the ‘Prince.’
“In light of the Supreme Court's most recent ruling in the affirmative action case, we see a high likelihood of success… to end not just donor and legacy preferences at Harvard, but also at other colleges and universities across the country,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
He shared that the federal government is investigating the complaint.
Bridget O’Neill is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’
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