The Education Department has opened a civil rights investigation into Harvard University’s legacy admissions policy, inserting the federal government directly into a fierce national debate about wealth, privilege and race after the Supreme Court gutted the use of affirmative action in higher education.
The inquiry into one of the nation’s richest and most prestigious universities will examine allegations by three liberal groups that Harvard’s practice of showing preference for the relatives of alumni and donors discriminates against Black, Hispanic and Asian applicants in favor of white and wealthy students who are less qualified.
The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has powerful enforcement authority that could eventually lead to a settlement with Harvard or trigger a lengthy legal battle like the one that led to the Supreme Court’s decision to severely limit race-conscious admissions last month, reversing a decades-long approach that had increased chances for Black students and those from other minority groups.
The move by the Biden administration comes at a moment of heightened scrutiny of college admissions practices following the ruling, which has resurfaced long-simmering anger about the advantages that colleges often give to the wealthy and connected.
Harvard gives preference to applicants who are recruited athletes, legacies, relatives of donors and children of faculty and staff. As a group, they make up less than 5 percent of applicants, but around 30 percent of those admitted each year. About 67.8 percent of these applicants are white, according to court papers.
After the court’s decision, President Biden said legacy admission policies expand “privilege instead of opportunity.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, tweeted that the practice is “affirmative action for the privileged.” Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina and a presidential candidate, called for Harvard to eliminate “preferential treatment for legacy kids.”
At Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in Connecticut, President Michael S. Roth announced earlier this month the end of legacy admissions at his school, saying the practice was a distraction and “a sign of unfairness to the outside world.” The federal inquiry comes after a formal complaint filed by three groups earlier this month.
Lawyers for the groups — the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network — said Harvard’s practice gives an undeserved leg up to the children of wealthy donors and alumni.
“It is imperative that the federal government act now to eliminate this unfair barrier that systematically disadvantages students of color,” Michael Kippins, a litigation fellow at Lawyers for Civil Rights, said when the complaint was filed.
The Education Department said in a statement that “the Office for Civil Rights can confirm that there is an open investigation of Harvard University under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Title VI is a part of federal law that prohibits discrimination, exclusion from participation or denial of benefits “on the ground of race, color or national origin.”
Nicole Rura, a spokeswoman for Harvard, said in a statement that the university was already reviewing the way it admits students to ensure it is in compliance with the law after the court’s decision.
“Our review includes examination of a range of data and information,” she said, adding that the university will continue to “strengthen our ability to attract and support a diverse intellectual community.”
Ms. Rura added: “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.”
Harvard’s legacy preferences have been investigated before.
In the 1980s, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights investigated allegations that Asian American applicants were being discriminated against in favor of white students, according to court papers. The investigation blamed the difference in admission rates on legacy preferences, and found that the university had legitimate reasons for favoring legacies.
The Harvard trial that led to the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision revealed just how important legacy admissions are to Harvard. The plaintiffs described the final round of admissions, called the lop. Applicants on the cusp of admission or rejection were placed on a list that contained only four pieces of information: legacy status, recruited athlete status, financial aid eligibility and race. Based on this information, the admissions committee would decide which finalists to cut, or lop.
Harvard and other universities have defended legacy admissions.
They argue that giving preference to the children of alumni helps build a valuable sense of loyalty and belonging, and spurs alumni to volunteer their time and give money to the university, which can be used for scholarships. Harvard argued at trial that overall, legacy applicants were highly qualified.
But critics of legacy admissions said the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision underscores the need to end those preferences as well.
“Let’s be clear — legacy and donor admissions have long served to perpetuate an inherently racist college admissions process,” said Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P. “Every talented and qualified student deserves an opportunity to attend the college of their choice. Affirmative action existed to support that notion. Legacy admissions exist to undermine it.”
A newly released study by a group of economists based at Harvard found that legacies at elite colleges were more qualified overall than the average applicant. But even when comparing applicants who were similar in every other way, legacy applicants still had an advantage. The study, by Opportunity Insights, which studies inequality, also raised the question of whether, by scuttling practices like legacy admissions, colleges could potentially diversify the leadership ranks of American society.
On Wednesday, Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, and Representative Jamaal Bowman, Democrat of New York, plan to reintroduce legislation that would bar universities from giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni and donors.
A poll released last year by the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of the people surveyed believed that legacy preferences should not be a factor in college admissions.
In his concurring opinion in the Harvard case, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch took a swipe at Harvard for its legacy admissions.
“Its preferences for the children of donors, alumni, and faculty are no help to applicants who cannot boast of their parents’ good fortune or trips to the alumni tent all their lives,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. “While race-neutral on their face, too, these preferences undoubtedly benefit white and wealthy applicants the most.”
Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiff in the Harvard case, submitted a statistical analysis in court finding that Harvard could come close to achieving the racial diversity it wanted if it eliminated preferences for children of alumni, donors and faculty, and increased preferences for low-income applicants.
Harvard resisted, saying it would not get the academic caliber it wanted.
About 70 percent of legacy applicants admitted to Harvard are white, according to a 2019 study by Peter Arcidiacono, an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions.
Edward Blum, the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, sounded a cautionary note on Tuesday. He suggested that however appealing, ending the tradition of legacy admissions might not be as simple as it seemed, given an absence over the years of related litigation brought by organizations representing minority groups.
“Like a significant majority of all Americans, S.F.F.A.’s members hope that colleges and universities end legacy preferences,” Mr. Blum said in a statement.
Officials at the Education Department declined to discuss the possible outcomes of the investigation, citing rules about not commenting on open investigations.
The vast majority of similar cases are resolved by reaching a resolution with the university to address the concerns of the department, according to Art Coleman, managing partner of EducationCounsel, which advises colleges and universities.
If a resolution cannot be reached, the matter can be referred to the Justice Department, which can initiate litigation and follow normal litigation rules. A case may also go to an administrative hearing, with the ultimate potential sanction being withholding all federal funds.
“That almost never happens,” Mr. Coleman said, because it would deprive tens of thousands of students of educational opportunities.
The Office of Civil Rights has an obligation to investigate plausible claims, Mr. Coleman said. “That’s not, as it might be couched, some judgment that’s being made for political reasons,” he said. “O.C.R.’s got an obligation under its regulations to investigate any complaint that states a viable legal claim with sufficient facts behind it.”