Biden Administration Launches Inquiry into Legacy Admissions Policy at Harvard University

The Biden administration has taken action to investigate Harvard University’s use of legacy admissions policies, which grant preferential treatment to applicants who are relatives of alumni. The investigation is being conducted by the department’s Office for Civil Rights and was prompted by a complaint filed by several nonprofit groups requesting a review of Harvard’s practices.

The complaint alleges that Harvard College provides special preference in its admissions process to hundreds of mostly white students based solely on their familial connections, rather than their individual achievements. This practice, the complaint argues, effectively gives white applicants an advantage and results in the exclusion of non-white applicants, which violates federal civil rights law.

The filing of the complaint came shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision to ban the use of affirmative action in college admissions in June.

Harvard has acknowledged being notified of the investigation, while the Education Department declined to offer further details about the inquiry.

The nonprofit groups that filed the complaint welcome the development and cite research showing that applicants with family ties to donors are significantly more likely to be admitted compared to non-donor-related applicants. Legacy applicants also enjoy a higher likelihood of admission, and the majority of these beneficiaries are white.

“This policy automatically excludes certain students from the equation, sending the wrong message,” stated Zaida Ismatul Oliva, executive director of the Chica Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bridging the “opportunity divide” faced by young people of color, which can result in limited access to education, financial stability, social capital, and political influence.

Expressing their concern, Oliva’s group believes that such a policy is inherently unfair. Alongside the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England and the Greater Boston Latino Network are also among the groups that have filed the complaint in question.

New research reveals a strong correlation between attending elite colleges and higher earnings. In response to recent court rulings, some colleges are reevaluating their legacy admissions policies. Wesleyan University, for example, recently announced its decision to abandon this practice, recognizing that an applicant’s connection to a graduate does not necessarily indicate their potential for success at the university.

On the other hand, graduates from the most selective private colleges, such as Harvard, often go on to become influential leaders in the country. A working paper released by prominent economists examining societal inequities found that children from the top 1% of the income distribution are twice as likely as their middle-class peers with similar test scores to attend Ivy League or exclusive institutions.

However, graduates from these elite schools, who may have an advantage in the admissions process due to their familial connections, further contribute to income disparities in the country, as they are more likely to secure prestigious positions in top firms.

The researchers argue that elite colleges perpetuate privilege across generations and call for changes in admissions policies to promote greater diversity among the country’s top earners. Harvard, in response, is currently reviewing its admissions policies to ensure compliance with the law and to maintain its commitment to admitting talented and promising students from diverse backgrounds. The university aims to foster inclusivity and encourage students from various walks of life to apply for admission.

Opportunity Insights, a research group, conducted an extensive analysis of federal college enrollment and income tax data spanning from 1999 to 2015, coupled with test score statistics over a similar period. Their focus was on the eight Ivy League institutions, as well as Stanford, Duke, MIT, and the University of Chicago, all known for their extremely low acceptance rates (less than 7% of applicants).

Economists Raj Chetty from Harvard, David J. Deming also from Harvard, and John Friedman from Brown, were granted unique access to admissions evaluations from some of these schools, under the condition of anonymity. Utilizing this data, they examined the disparities in admissions decisions for waitlisted applicants.

Their findings revealed that:

  1. Attending one of these highly prestigious schools (compared to an average, highly selective public flagship university) increases a student’s likelihood of reaching the top 1% income bracket by 60%.
  2. It nearly doubles their chances of gaining admission to an elite graduate school.
  3. It triples their prospects of securing employment at a prestigious firm.

Understanding the Advantage of Wealthy Students in College Admissions

Following the recent Supreme Court ruling that banned the consideration of race in admissions, attention has shifted to other factors that play a significant role in evaluating applicants. These practices shed light on the advantages affluent students enjoy when seeking admission to prestigious institutions, often referred to as Ivy-Plus schools.

The research conducted by economists highlights three key factors that contribute to the admissions advantage of wealthy students:

  1. Legacy Preferences: Colleges often give preferential treatment to the children of alumni, commonly known as legacy students. This practice provides an edge to applicants with family ties to the institution.
  2. Non-Academic Ratings: The weight placed on students’ non-academic ratings, such as extracurricular activities and personal achievements, tends to be higher at private high schools that charge tuition. This results in an advantage for students coming from more privileged educational backgrounds.
  3. Athletic Recruitment: The recruitment of athletes also contributes to the advantage enjoyed by wealthy students. Many athletes come from households with higher incomes, further bolstering their standing in the admissions process.

While the focus on race has diminished, these practices underscore the complexities of college admissions and raise questions about equity and access for all aspiring students, regardless of their socioeconomic background.