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Department of Education launches investigation into Harvard legacy admissions

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Education Department launched a civil rights investigation into Harvard University's legacy admissions practices, which gives preferential treatment to relatives of alumni and donors. But that's under renewed scrutiny following the Supreme Court's recent ruling overturning the use of race-conscious admissions. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo has this report.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Legacy admissions give an advantage to college applicants who are children of alumni and donors. About 40% of private colleges use the practice to help decide which freshmen get a spot in their incoming class.

OREN SELLSTROM: Harvard's discriminatory practice of using donor and legacy preferences in admissions overwhelmingly benefit white applicants and harm applicants of color.

CARRILLO: That's Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director from the Boston-based nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights. Earlier this month, the group filed a complaint with the Education Department claiming Harvard's practices violate the Civil Rights Act. Legacy admissions have been a hallmark of elite institutions since the 1920s, when it was started as a way to reserve spots for the children of wealthy white Protestants. These days, it serves a similar crowd. According to Harvard admissions data, about 15% of an average incoming class has a family connection to the school, and the vast majority of that group comes from wealthy backgrounds. Yesterday, Sellstrom's organization announced that the Education Department had responded to their complaint by launching a formal investigation.

SELLSTROM: Simply put, Harvard is on the wrong side of history. Momentum is growing. As more and more colleges and universities abandon these unfair preferences, those that cling to them will increasingly be seen as outliers.

CARRILLO: Over the past few years, a growing number of colleges have dropped legacy preference in admissions, including the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus and Wesleyan University. Wesleyan President Michael Roth told NPR last week that the school had been considering dropping legacy for years, and the Supreme Court's affirmative action ruling finally tipped the scales.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL ROTH: It seemed to me more important than ever to say that we're going to no longer provide some students with an unearned advantage.

CARRILLO: About a quarter of the country's college students attend private colleges that are more likely to consider legacy in their admissions practices.

Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News.

FADEL: A Harvard spokesperson told NPR that the university is reviewing aspects of its admission policies to assure compliance with the law and "to carry forward Harvard's long-standing committment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.