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US Department of Education opens investigation into Harvard’s legacy and donor admissions process

At Harvard, about 14 percent of students accepted between 2010 and 2015 were children of alumni.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into Harvard University’s use of donor and legacy preferences in its admissions process, following a civil rights complaint over the practice that was filed earlier this month.

The federal probe comes as selective colleges are under intense scrutiny over admissions policies that largely benefit white, affluent candidates, and over whether enrollment of Black and Hispanic students will fall following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision last month to strike down race-based affirmative action in higher education.

A spokesperson for the Education Department confirmed the open investigation into Harvard’s admissions practices Tuesday. The probe will focus on whether Harvard “discriminates on the basis of race by using donor and legacy preferences in its undergraduate admissions process,” according to a letter from the department to the attorney for the group that filed the complaint.

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The probe will determine whether such policies violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits organizations that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race. The department declined to comment further on the investigation.

Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Swain said the university “remains dedicated to opening doors to opportunity.”

“Following the Supreme Court’s recent decision, we are in the process of reviewing aspects of our admissions policies to assure compliance with the law and to carry forward Harvard’s longstanding commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences,” Swain said.

“Our review includes examination of a range of data and information, along with learnings from Harvard’s efforts over the past decade to strengthen our ability to attract and support a diverse intellectual community that is fundamental to our pursuit of academic excellence,” he added.

Harvard, along with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the subject of the Supreme Court decision, which determined that the universities’ affirmative action admissions practices violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

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The nonprofit group Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a complaint in federal court this month. The complaint asks federal investigators to “declare that Harvard’s ongoing use of Donor and Legacy Preferences is discriminatory,” and says that the university should cease legacy preferences if it “wishes to continue receiving federal funds.”

Oren Sellstrom, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, said Tuesday that the complaint has “sparked a national conversation about the unfair and undeserved preferences that Harvard uses.”

“The response that we have received has been overwhelming from communities of color, who know the urgency of rooting out unfair barriers that stand in the way of equal opportunity, as well as from legacy families who themselves might even stand to benefit from this preferential treatment but agree that these preferences are deeply unfair, particularly now that the Supreme Court has scaled back on traditional affirmative action,” Sellstrom said.

At Harvard, about 14 percent of students accepted between 2010 and 2015 were children of alumni, according to an analysis of Harvard admissions data, which became public through the Supreme Court case. The acceptance rate for legacy applicants during that period was about 5.7 times higher than for typical applicants.

State legislation filed earlier this year also calls for the end of legacy preferences in admissions at Massachusetts colleges.

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Advocates say that if colleges cannot grant an advantage to applicants for the color of their skin, then it is unfair to offer an advantage to students based on their parents.

Research released Monday confirms that legacy applicants, especially those from high-income backgrounds, receive the largest boost in the admissions process at highly selective colleges, followed by recruited athletes, who mostly come from wealthy backgrounds and are overwhelmingly white at top schools. High-income students who attend private high schools are also more likely to gain admission to top colleges, the research found.

“These kids with a strong nonacademic rating, legacy kids, the athletes — is it justified that they get in [to top schools] at higher rates?” said Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist and professor, who co-wrote the report. “Do we see them having better outcomes? The answer to that is no. As we’re thinking about diversity in a post-affirmative-action world, can we make progress by not implicitly or unintentionally having affirmative action for the rich?”

Last week, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said it is ending the practice of favoring children of alumni in admissions. Massachusetts colleges that do not consider legacy admissions include Amherst College, MIT, Boston University, Emerson College, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

A spokesperson for Tufts University said last week that the school expects to review its use of legacy preferences following an internal study; some of its graduate schools, including the medical school, have already ended the practice.

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Dartmouth College said last week that it will continue to use legacy preferences.

“A legacy connection will continue to be one factor among dozens that Dartmouth considers when evaluating applicants; those categories include academic performance, qualitative information from essays and recommendations, extracurricular engagement, geography, and academic interests, among others,” a spokesperson said.

The other Ivy League schools did not respond to questions regarding their continued use of legacy admissions.


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.