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Mass. Democrats pressure US Department of Education to curtail legacy admissions

Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke during the "Just Majority" Supreme Court Accountability Campaign Launch press conference in Copley Square on April 24.Scott Eisen/Getty Images for Just Majority

WASHINGTON — When the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action for university admissions earlier this summer, Democrats said it was time to take on a different higher education policy: legacy and donor admissions. Now, Massachusetts senators are calling for the Biden administration to crack down.

If institutions of higher education can’t consider a student’s race, Democrats argue, they should not be able to consider familial or financial connections, either.

In a letter they sent Monday to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, as well as independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, called on the department to “aggressively” pursue further investigations and legal complaints about universities that continue to give the children of alumni and donors preference in admissions. And they want the department to withhold federal funding to those universities, too.


“The very origin of legacy admissions in the 1920s was to limit the diversification of elite colleges and universities,” the letter said. “Today, the evidence is clear that legacy admissions does just that; it overwhelmingly disadvantages students of color in favor of affluent White students.”

Such letters are largely messaging exercises with no power of enforcement, but this one underscores the degree to which legacy admissions — a fixture of higher education — have become a political boogeyman on both sides of the aisle. Democrats have already introduced legislation to ban the practice, while some Republicans, including presidential candidate and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina have likewise called for its end.

It also shows how the fallout of the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling is increasing bipartisan scrutiny on the Department of Education as it moves to respond.

The issue has already drawn considerable attention from the administration. President Biden has taken aim at the practice in his own remarks. The federal Department of Education’s civil rights division opened an investigation into Harvard’s use of legacy and donor admissions late last month.


On Monday, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice jointly released guidance spelling out how colleges and university could consider the race of an applicant within the bounds of the law as established by the court’s ruling. It said universities can consider race insofar as it ties to students’ characteristics and lived experience.

“For example, a university could consider an applicant’s explanation about what it means to him to be the first Black violinist in his city’s youth orchestra or an applicant’s account of overcoming prejudice when she transferred to a rural high school where she was the only student of South Asian descent,” the guidance said.

It also strongly hinted that eliminating legacy admissions could help universities achieve goals for their student bodies.

“Nothing in the decision prevents an institution from determining whether preferences for legacy students or children of donors, for example, run counter to efforts to promote equal opportunities for all students in the context of college admissions,” the guidance said.

Markey, Warren, and Sanders indicated more should follow.

“The Court’s decision strikes a blow against diversity in higher education while keeping intact harmful practices that advantage the wealthy and well-connected,” the letter said. “The U.S. Department of Education must respond.”

The letter also called for the department to commission a report on the “detrimental effects of legacy admissions and donor preference,” and to provide “resources to colleges and universities to support their transitions away from” those practices.


Legacy admissions represent a considerable slice of the student body at some elite colleges. A survey by the Harvard Crimson found that 14.6 percent of the class of 2023 identified themselves as legacy students. Documents in the civil rights complaint against Harvard said that, while the overall acceptance rate at Harvard was 6 percent between 2009 and 2015, about 34 percent of the children of alumni were accepted.

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Follow her @jessbidgood.