Harvard legacy admissions

Demonstrators protest against legacy and donor admission preferences at Harvard University on July 1, 2023 in Cambridge, Mass.

(Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Progressive Senators Urge Education Department to End Legacy, Donor Preferences in College Admissions

"Colleges and universities are a path towards opportunity, but this opportunity should not be locked behind an ivory tower."

A trio of progressive New England senators on Monday called on U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to use his powers "to even the playing field for college applicants by helping to end preferential treatment" for higher education aspirants who are the children of alumni and donors.

"In its June decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the United States Supreme Court once again overturned decades of settled precedent, this time gutting the use of affirmative action in college admissions," Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to Cardona made public Tuesday.

"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 senators asserted. "The U.S. Department of Education must respond."

The lawmakers implored Cardona to "immediately take steps to mitigate the impact of this Supreme Court decision, including by using your advisory and enforcement authority to help effectively end preferential treatment given to children of alumni—legacy admissions—and donors and help ensure a more even playing field for students applying to college."

The senators say those steps should include:

  • Providing resources to colleges and universities to support their transitions away from legacy and donor preferences;
  • Aggressively pursuing investigations of complaints regarding legacy and donor preference and other admissions policies that provide preferential treatment;
  • Refusing to provide federal funding to universities that continue to preference legacy and donor admissions to disproportionately benefit affluent, white students; and,
  • Commissioning a report on the detrimental effects of legacy admissions and donor preference.

"Colleges and universities are a path towards opportunity, but this opportunity should not be locked behind an ivory tower," the lawmakers stressed. "We must ensure that future generations will not be weighed down by the inequities of our past. We must endeavor to give every student the opportunity to fulfill their educational dreams."

The lawmakers' letter follows the launch last month of a Department of Education civil rights probe of Harvard University's legacy admissions program and a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups challenging the elite Massachusetts school's preferential treatment of applicants related to alumni and donors—a policy the litigants say "severely damages and harms" prospective students of color.

A recent study by economists at Harvard revealed that legacy students were nearly four times likelier to be admitted than other applicants with identical test scores.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) introduced the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, which would bar colleges and universities from favoring the children of alumni and donors during the admissions process.

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