After affirmative action blow, legacy preference draws focus
Civil rights complaint and a federal investigation target Harvard admissions
AFTER THE US SUPREME COURT ruled this spring to significantly scale back higher educational institutions’ use of affirmative action, advocacy and civil rights groups wound up for a counter-punch at Harvard. America’s oldest university, and its policy of allowing for legacy admission preference, is in the crosshairs of both a federal investigation and a civil rights lawsuit.
“That is one of the main reasons why we then decided to file the federal civil rights complaint targeting legacy and donor preferences,” Oren Sellstrom, litigation director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said on the Codcast. It was “essentially to say, if you’re gonna look at what you call preferential treatment, you really need to examine all of the real preferences that are out there – the ones that go overwhelmingly to White students.”
Legacy admissions, and the related donor preferences, give preferred treatment in the admissions process to the children or relatives of alumni and wealthy donors. Data revealed during the affirmative action lawsuit brought against Harvard – by groups arguing that it demonstrated impermissible preference on the basis of race – also showed the disparate impact of legacy preferences.
About 15 percent of Harvard’s admitted students fall into those two categories, the Lawyers for Civil Rights complaint says, citing the admissions data. Donor-related and legacy applicants applicants, which were about 70 percent White, were nearly seven and six times more likely to be admitted than those who did not fall into those respective categories.
Lawyers for Civil Rights filed its complaint last month targeting Harvard’s preferential admittance policies for the Greater Boston Latino Network, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Chica Project. The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has since opened an investigation into the university.
Research from Harvard and Brown professors this June supports the coalition’s case. In their report, Raj Chetty, David Deming, and John Friedman said applicants to those elite colleges and universities often have a “high-income admissions advantage” because of preferences for children of alumni; non-academic credentials, which tend to be stronger for students applying from private high schools; and recruitment of athletes, who tend to come from higher-income families.
Some argue that there are upsides to legacy preferences, or at least that they make up a small enough proportion of elite enough institutions that they don’t matter all that much on the scale of things.
In a Boston Globe column, Kara Miller says the focus on elite institutions continues to boost their status, and it may be a losing battle to focus on discouraging those institutions from understandably seeking to cultivate wealthy and influential attendees and donors.
“Certainly it is the case that admission to elite institutions can be important for many people,” Sellstrom said. “But there is no connection between recognizing that and then saying that legacy or donor preferences should exist. If anything, the answer is the reverse. If institutions are important as they are, then it’s all the more important that they have fair and equitable admissions processes that do not give somebody a boost just because they share a last name with the science building.”
The ripple effects of the affirmative action ruling could be felt throughout the educational world. For now, using proxies for race like zip code are still in place across the country, but increasingly facing challenges aimed at the high court. So advocacy groups are also casting a wide net in response – helping institutions amend admissions policies, educating students and families about how to work within the new framework that will allow universities to consider race on an individual rather than group level, and targeting other preferential systems.As admission season gears up, Sellstrom said colleges and universities are changing their policies, particularly their essay questions, to ask students if there something about their background, the neighborhood they grew up in, where they came from geographically, or their racial or ethnic background that concretely impacted their life.
“So many of the different processes that are used by colleges and universities really need to be examined at this point,” Sellstrom said. “We are at a critical point in our nation’s history when it comes to education access. This Supreme Court decision really was a bombshell – not an unexpected one, but one that is really going to change the landscape of what it means for admissions to institutions of higher learning.”