Playing favourites: With affirmative action overturned, a lawsuit is targeting Harvard’s legacy admissions practices.

In the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action at US colleges, many are coming under fire for legacy admissions. Automatically admitting relatives of past alumni is now being seen as discriminatory.


Eden Grosz

7/17/20235 min read

Image (cartoon): a parent hands an admissions letter to a baby with the address written as "Privilege Lane". Source: The Baylor Lariat

In the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action at all US colleges, many institutions are coming under fire for legacy admissions. Automatically admitting relatives of past alumni is also now seen as discriminatory.

A civil rights group has filed a lawsuit challenging the practice of legacy admissions at Harvard University. The group claims that it discriminates against students of colour in the admissions process because the children of alumni are overwhelmingly white. The lawsuit argues that the admissions system therefore violates the Civil Rights Act, which protects the equal treatment of ethnic groups. The case has been brought forth by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in the US state of New England.

The legal action is part of a broader movement against legacy admissions, which prioritise the children of alumni in college admissions. Criticism of this practice has intensified following the recent Supreme Court decision that ended affirmative action in college admissions. Opponents argue that legacy admissions are no longer justifiable without the counterbalance of affirmative action, which aims at racial equality by allocating places specifically for people of different ethnic groups. Although the end of affirmative action means colleges must ignore applicants' race, they can still give preference to the family of financial donors and past students of the college.

Image: The marble and column facade of the United States Supreme Court. The court has recently ruled against race-conscious admissions policies intended to improve racial equality. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The recent Supreme Court decision marked a significant turning point in the affirmative action debate. It ended the use of race-conscious admissions policies at colleges and universities, effectively prohibiting schools from considering an applicant's race as a factor in the admissions process. This decision created a void in the efforts to promote diversity and sparked concerns that without affirmative action, other admissions practices such as legacy preferences would exacerbate inequality.

Opponents argue that legacy admissions maintain privileged social networks. Those who attended US colleges decades ago would have gone through an unfair admissions system that would have given preference to them simply because they were wealthy, well-connected, and white. Giving admissions preference to the descendants of these people today effectively brings the unfair advantages of the past right into the present. It imports the injustices of historic racism into an era that is supposed to be more equal.

Overall, the Harvard case and the Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action highlight the ongoing struggle to strike a balance between promoting diversity and rectifying historical inequalities in college admissions. Both cases contribute to the larger conversation about fairness, meritocracy, and equal opportunity in education, shaping the landscape for future admissions policies and practices.

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Image: Legacy admissions protestor holding up a sign. Almost half of white students at Harvard are related to donors, past alumni, or college athletes. Source: BBC / Getty Images.

The extent of legacy admissions and their impact on college admissions are not known across all states. In California, where state law mandates disclosure of the practice, the University of Southern California reported that 14% of admitted students had family ties to alumni or donors. Stanford reported a similar rate. An Associated Press survey of highly selective colleges in the previous year revealed that the proportion of legacy students in the freshman class ranged from 4% to 23%, with four universities—Notre Dame, USC, Cornell, and Dartmouth—having more legacy students than Black students.

Proponents of legacy admissions argue that it helps foster an engaged alumni community and encourages donations, which improves the financial welfare of the college. However, a study conducted at an undisclosed Northeastern college in 2022 found that while legacy students were more likely to make donations, this came at the expense of diversity, as many legacy students were white.

Image: The Harvard admissions centre sign. The top US university is the subject of a new lawsuit regarding discriminatory admissions practices. Source: Wall Street Journal

In addition to the lawsuit, a separate campaign led by Ed Mobilizer is urging alumni of 30 prestigious colleges, including Harvard and other Ivy League institutions, to withhold donations until legacy admissions are abolished. President Joe Biden also weighed in on the matter, suggesting that universities should reconsider the practice as it perpetuates privilege rather than promoting opportunity.

The lawsuit against Harvard cites data that came to light during the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court. The revealed records showed that 70% of Harvard's legacy and donor-related applicants are white. On the other hand, being a legacy student increases the likelihood of admission by six times. Among white students granted admission, close to half are related to alumni, college athletes, faculty and staff, or those on the dean's interest list. The lawsuit contends that legacy preferences at Harvard have nothing to do with merit, and unfairly deny admission to capable non-white students. It asks the U.S. Education Department to declare the practice illegal and compel Harvard to abandon it if the university is to receive federal funding.

Several colleges, including Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University, have already abandoned legacy admissions due to concerns about fairness. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Chica Project, the organisation forAfrican Community Economic Development of New England , and the Greater Boston Latino Network. It argues that eliminating legacy and donor preferences would very likely result in the admission of more students of colour to Harvard.

Image (cartoon): A college admissions official is pictured with a pile of money, stating that according to the new ruling they are obliged to be "blind to colour...except GREEN". Source: Scranton Times-Tribune

While legacy admissions and affirmative action are distinct practices, they are connected through their impact on equal opportunity in higher education. The Supreme Court's decision to overturn affirmative action has ignited a re-evaluation of other admissions practices, including legacy preferences, in the pursuit of a more equitable and inclusive college admissions process.

This monumental lawsuit against one of America's top universities comes just days after the recent historic Supreme Court decision overturning affirmative action. The new lawsuit’s connection to this decision lies in their shared implications for equal opportunity in college admissions. Understanding the context of the Supreme Court ruling helps shed light on why the Harvard case has gained momentum and why legacy admissions are being questioned.

In the United States, affirmative action policies have long been implemented in college admissions as a means to promote diversity and rectify historical inequalities. These policies allow universities to consider an applicant's race or ethnicity as a factor in the admissions process. However, on the issue of affirmative action, the Supreme Court has issued several historic rulings that have shaped the legal landscape.