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"The U.S. Department of Education Sues Harvard University for Legacy and Donor Admissions"

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

The U.S. Department of Education Sues Harvard University for Legacy and Donor Admissions: Historical Precedents, Current Controversies, and Future Implications


(Photo Credit: US News)

"The US Department of Education has begun a civil rights investigation into whether Harvard University discriminates in its admissions process by giving preferential treatment to children of wealthy donors and alumni, roughly three weeksafter a lawsuit made those allegations.

That lawsuit, filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of three minority advocacy groups, alleged the students who receive that preferential treatment are “overwhelmingly White” and make up as much as 15% of Harvard’s admitted students. The plaintiffs called on the Department of Education to investigate Harvard’s use of donor and legacy preferences and “the resulting unjustified disparate impact.”

(Photo Credit: CNN)

US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights will now probe whether Harvard “discriminates on the basis of race by using donor and legacy preferences in its undergraduate admissions process in violation of Title VI and its implementing regulations,” according to a Monday letter from Ramzi Ajami, a regional director for the office." - CNN, 07/25/2023, "Department of Education launches civil rights probe after lawsuit accuses Harvard of giving preferential treatment to legacy applicants",

MR. MBA® Analysis

Higher education in the United States has long been a topic of intense scrutiny and debate. One of the most prestigious institutions, Harvard University, has faced its share of controversies, particularly regarding its admissions practices. Among the contentious issues is the consideration of legacy and donor status in the admissions process. In recent times, the U.S. Department of Education took legal action against Harvard University over these practices. This essay explores the historical context of Harvard's admissions practices, its current stance on legacy and donor admissions, and the potential implications of this legal action for Harvard and elite national schools.

Historical Precedents:

Harvard's Early Admissions Practices Harvard University, established in 1636, has a rich history that predates the founding of the United States. Throughout its existence, it has maintained a reputation for academic excellence and exclusivity. In its early years, Harvard practiced admissions that favored legacy students, who were typically the sons of alumni, and donors. These practices served to perpetuate the elite class, ensuring that Harvard remained a preserve for the privileged. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Harvard, like many other Ivy League institutions, began to shift towards merit-based admissions, influenced by broader societal changes and educational reform movements. This shift aimed to make admissions more equitable and provide opportunities for academically talented individuals, regardless of their social backgrounds.

(Photo Credit: Harvard University)

Current Controversies:

Harvard's Admissions Practices Today While Harvard has made efforts to diversify its student body and reduce the influence of legacy and donor considerations, these practices continue to be a subject of controversy. In the ongoing legal case brought by the U.S. Department of Education, it is alleged that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants by giving preference to legacy and donor-connected students. Harvard has denied these allegations, maintaining that their admissions process is holistic and takes into account a range of factors, including academic achievement, extracurricular activities, and personal qualities. Harvard's official stance is that legacy status and donor connections can play a role but are not determinative in the admissions process. However, critics argue that these preferences can perpetuate inequality and favor applicants from wealthy and influential families. They contend that this practice can limit opportunities for academically qualified individuals from less privileged backgrounds.

Legal Implications and Future Ramifications

The outcome of the lawsuit between the U.S. Department of Education and Harvard University could have significant implications for Harvard and other elite national schools.

  1. Admissions Policies: If the lawsuit results in a verdict that forces Harvard to change its admissions practices significantly, it may set a precedent for other elite institutions. They may need to reconsider how they evaluate legacy and donor connections in the admissions process, potentially moving towards a more merit-based approach.

  2. Diversity and Inclusion: A ruling against Harvard could encourage other universities to reassess their commitment to diversity and inclusion. They may seek ways to increase representation from underrepresented groups and reduce reliance on legacy and donor preferences.

  3. Socioeconomic Mobility: A shift away from legacy and donor preferences could enhance socioeconomic mobility for individuals from less privileged backgrounds. Elite institutions might focus more on providing opportunities to those who have demonstrated academic excellence and potential, regardless of family connections.

  4. Alumni Relations: Changing admissions policies might also impact alumni relations and fundraising efforts. Institutions like Harvard rely on the generosity of alumni donors. If the lawsuit prompts changes in admissions, they might need to find alternative ways to engage their alumni community and secure financial support.

  5. Public Perception: The lawsuit has garnered significant public attention and has led to discussions about fairness and equity in higher education. Regardless of the outcome, it has drawn attention to the admissions practices of elite institutions, potentially influencing public perception and future enrollment trends.


The lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Education against Harvard University for its legacy and donor admissions practices highlights the ongoing debate over equity and fairness in higher education. Harvard's historical admissions practices, which favored legacies and donors, have evolved over time but continue to be a subject of contention. The outcome of this lawsuit could reshape the landscape of admissions at elite national schools and serve as a precedent for other institutions. It has the potential to influence how universities across the country evaluate applicants and may impact the socioeconomic mobility of future generations of students. Ultimately, the case underscores the importance of transparency, equity, and meritocracy in higher education admissions, as well as the ongoing need for discussions about how to ensure that opportunities are accessible to all, regardless of family connections or financial means. Harvard's experience serves as a microcosm of the broader issues facing American higher education, where the pursuit of excellence must be balanced with the imperative of equal opportunity.

by Val Misra, MR. MBA®

Founder & Managing Consultant

MR. MBA®, USA 501c3 NonProfit- We Help Students Get Into The Top Schools (College / MBA / Masters) & Careers.

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