Federal Civil Rights Complaint Challenges Harvard’s Legacy Admissions

Education, Racial Justice

Federal Civil Rights Complaint Challenges Harvard’s Practice Of Giving Preferential Treatment In Admissions To Children of Wealthy Donors and Alumni 

Preferences Go Overwhelmingly To White Applicants And Systematically Disadvantage Applicants Of Color 

The Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England (ACEDONE), and the Greater Boston Latino Network (GBLN) filed a federal civil rights complaint against Harvard College, challenging its discriminatory practice of giving preferential treatment in the admissions process to applicants with familial ties to wealthy donors and alumni (“legacy applicants”). The complaint, alleging widespread violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) by Lawyers for Civil Rights

The complaint comes on the heels of last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited the ability to consider race in college admissions, and argues that it is even more imperative now to eliminate policies that systematically disadvantage students of color. 

As the complaint outlines, nearly 70% of Harvard’s donor-related and legacy applicants are white, and they receive a substantial boost based on their status. Donor-related applicants are nearly 7 times more likely to be admitted than non-donor-related applicants, and legacies are nearly 6 times more likely to be admitted. 

For the Class of 2019, about 28% of the class were legacies with a parent or other relative who went to Harvard. Qualified and highly deserving applicants of color are harmed as a result, as admissions slots are given instead to the overwhelmingly white applicants who benefit from Harvard’s legacy and donor preferences. 

Even worse, this preferential treatment has nothing to do with an applicant’s merit. Instead, it is an unfair and unearned benefit that is conferred solely based on the family that the applicant is born into. This custom, pattern, and practice is exclusionary and discriminatory. It severely disadvantages and harms applicants of color. 

The complaint notes that in recent years numerous colleges and universities have recognized the unfairness of such preferences and have abandoned them, including all higher education institutions in Colorado; the University of California; Johns Hopkins University; and Amherst College.

The civil rights complaint calls on the DOE to launch a federal investigation, under Title VI and its implementing regulations, into Harvard’s practices surrounding legacy and donor preferences. The complaint urges the DOE to declare these practices illegal and to order Harvard to cease legacy and donor preference practices if the university wishes to continue receiving federal funds. 

“Harvard’s practice of giving a leg-up to the children of wealthy donors and alumni – who have done nothing to deserve it – must end. This preferential treatment overwhelmingly goes to white applicants and harms efforts to diversify. Particularly in light of last week’s decision from the Supreme Court, it is imperative that the federal government act now to eliminate this unfair barrier that systematically disadvantages students of color,” said Michael Kippins, Litigation Fellow at LCR.

 “There’s no birthright to Harvard. As the Supreme Court recently noted, ‘eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.’ There should be no way to identify who your parents are in the college application process. Why are we rewarding children for privileges and advantages accrued by prior generations? 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,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, Executive Director of LCR.

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