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Department of Education opens investigation into Harvard University's legacy admissions

Harvard professor on elite college admissions
Harvard professor discusses admission at elite colleges 04:30

The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into Harvard University's policies on legacy admissions, according to a group that alleges the practice is discriminatory. The department notified Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit based in Boston, on Monday that it was investigating the group's claim that alleges the university "discriminates on the basis of race by using donor and legacy preferences in its undergraduate admissions process."

Top colleges' preferential treatment of children of alumni has been facing new scrutiny since the Supreme Court last month struck down the use of affirmative action as a tool to diversify college campuses. The court's conservative majority effectively overturned cases reaching back 45 years, forcing institutions of higher education to seek new ways to achieve diverse student bodies.

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed its Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation at Harvard and declined further comment.

The complaint was filed July 3 on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England. The civil rights group argued that students with legacy ties are up to seven times more likely to be admitted to Harvard and can make up nearly a third of a class, and that about 70% are White. For the Class of 2019, about 28% of the class were legacies with a parent or other relative who went to Harvard.

"Qualified and highly deserving applicants of color are harmed as a result, as admissions slots are given instead to the overwhelmingly white applicants who benefit from Harvard's legacy and donor preferences," the group said in a statement. "Even worse, this preferential treatment has nothing to do with an applicant's merit. Instead, it is an unfair and unearned benefit that is conferred solely based on the family that the applicant is born into."

A spokesperson for Harvard on Tuesday said in a statement to CBS News that the university has been reviewing its admissions policies to ensure compliance with the law following the Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action.

"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," the spokesperson said. "As this work continues, and moving forward, Harvard remains dedicated to opening doors to opportunity and to redoubling our efforts to encourage students from many different backgrounds to apply for admission."

Last week, Wesleyan University in Connecticut announced that it would end its policy of giving preferential treatment in admissions to those whose families have historical ties to the school. Wesleyan President Michael Roth said a student's "legacy status" has played a negligible role in admissions but would now be eliminated entirely.

In recent years, several schools, including Amherst College in Massachusetts, Carnegie Melon University in Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland have also eliminated legacy admissions.

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