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The US Department of Education has opened a formal probe into Harvard University’s practice of favouring undergraduate applicants who are related to alumni or big donors, intensifying the scrutiny over its admissions policies.
The decision follows a complaint filed earlier in July by three Massachusetts-based advocates for minority groups, who argued Harvard’s use of donor and so-called legacy preferences is discriminatory. The groups demanded a halt to such practices if the Ivy League school is to continue to receive federal funds.
The Department of Education told the Financial Times in a statement: “The Office for Civil Rights can confirm that there is an open investigation of Harvard University under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
The investigation follows a landmark judgment by the US Supreme Court last month against affirmative action policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The court ruled that including race as a criterion for university admissions was unconstitutional.
Against a backdrop of rising criticism of legacy admissions for limiting social mobility and equitable access to higher education institutions, Wesleyan University and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities this week said they would stop the practice.
Education Reform Now, an advocacy group, estimates more than 100 colleges and universities have scrapped legacies since 2015, including Johns Hopkins and Amherst.
Scrutiny during the litigation that culminated in the Supreme Court revealed that legacy applicants to Harvard between 2014 and 2019 were nearly six times more likely to be admitted compared to others, while applicants related to donors were nearly seven times more likely.
Defenders of the status quo have argued that legacies and donations help universities fund scholarships and other programmes that can in turn support increased recruitment of under-represented groups and ensure a diverse mix of students on campus.
Legacy and donor-related applicants constituted up to 15 per cent of Harvard’s admitted students, nearly 70 per cent of whom were white. The policies were first introduced in the 1920s to limit the number of Jewish students, although the lobby group Students for Fair Admissions, which brought the Supreme Court affirmative action case, argued they now discriminated against Asians.
Harvard declined to comment on the latest complaint from the Department of Education, which was brought by the Chica Project, African Community Economic Development of New England and Greater Boston Latino Network.
It previously stressed its “commitment to the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives and lived experiences”.
Lawyers for Civil Rights, a non-profit organisation representing the groups that filed the complaint, said in a statement: “Harvard should follow the lead of a growing number of colleges and universities . . . and voluntarily abandon these unfair and undeserved preferences.”
A study published this week led by Raj Chetty at Harvard concluded that wealthy children from families in the top 1 per cent of income are more than twice as likely to attend an “Ivy-Plus college” — the eight Ivy League institutions plus Stanford, MIT, Duke and the University of Chicago — as those from middle-class families with comparable test scores.