Feds Investigating Penn’s Legacy Admissions Policies

Could Penn become the first Ivy to eliminate legacy preferences?
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on February 16, 2024
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  • The Education Department is determining if Penn's policies violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
  • Following the Supreme Court's ban on race-conscious admissions, an education activist filed discrimination complaints against several universities.
  • Legacy preferences have been shown to favor white, wealthy applicants.
  • A similar complaint was brought against Harvard last year.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) continues its investigations of legacy admissions practices, this time homing in on the University of Pennsylvania.

Last summer, the OCR opened a similar case against Harvard.

Both complaints levied against the Ivy League schools claim legacy admissions policies constitute racial discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Could this spell the end of legacy preferences at the Ivies and elsewhere?

Education Department Launches Investigation at Penn

In December, the OCR began its investigation into Penn's legacy admissions policies following a complaint filed by education activist Justin Samuels.

The OCR is determining whether Penn discriminates on the basis of race by using legacy preferences in undergraduate admissions, which would violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn's student newspaper, Samuels has filed hundreds of complaints against colleges, alleging racial and gender discrimination. In addition to Penn, Samuels has filed complaints against Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, the University of Chicago, and six other Ivy League schools.

Roughly 20 of those involve legacy admissions, Samuels told BestColleges. He began pursuing legal action following last summer's Supreme Court decision banning race-conscious admissions.

I think that if you maintain legacy preferences while affirmative action is being abolished, some people get an unfair leg up, Samuels told The Daily Pennsylvanian. I feel like affirmative action was a shield for legacy preference.

Samuels noted that the court's opinion referenced the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a landmark statement affirming equal protection under the law for all citizens.

Taken literally, it means you cannot have preferential treatment for people because of their birth, Samuels said. If you get in because your parents are alumni, that's unequal treatment.

At elite universities such as Penn, legacies tend to come from wealthy, white families. Given the admissions advantages legacy applicants enjoy — they're as much as seven times more likely to be admitted as non-legacies — it's no wonder some call legacy preferences affirmative action for the rich.

More white students are admitted to top 10 universities under an alumni preference bonus than the total number of Black and [Latino/a] students admitted under affirmative action policies, wrote Michael Dannenberg of Education Reform Now. Virtually no legacy student attending an elite institution is low-income.

Yet if the Barnard case is any barometer, the likelihood of Samuels' success might be slim. A U.S. District Court in New York dismissed Samuels' legacy case against the college for lack of standing.

Plaintiff, in his complaint and in his first supplement, the decision read, decries Barnard College's admission policies and seeks relief regarding those policies, though he alleges no facts showing that he himself will be or has been injured by those policies ...

Harvard Faces Similar Complaint

Harvard faces a similar investigation thanks to a complaint filed last July by the organization Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Around 70% of Harvard's donor and legacy students are white, according to the group's complaint. The lawyers also cited research showing that the institution's applicants related to donors are almost seven times more likely to be admitted compared to other students, and legacy applicants are nearly six times more likely.

The group wants the Education Department to ensure Harvard applicants have no way to indicate they are related to alumni, including through admissions essays and interviews.

In a statement, Harvard spokesperson Nicole Rura said the university is in the process of reviewing aspects of our admissions policies to assure compliance with the law and to carry forward Harvard's longstanding commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences.

Writing on Medium, Samuels noted that the Harvard investigation marked a significant turning point in the fight for fairness and that it set a precedent that could influence the policies of other elite institutions across the nation.

He believes his case against Penn, along with others, will ultimately lead to the eradication of legacy admissions.

At the same time, the Education Department makes clear that opening the complaint for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination on the merits of the complaint.

If it does find Penn in violation of Title VI, the OCR will negotiate a voluntary resolution agreement and monitor the university's compliance. Should Penn fail to comply, the OCR would refer the case to the Justice Department for judicial proceedings.

Depending on the timing of these OCR outcomes, either Penn or Harvard could become the first Ivy school to eliminate legacy preferences. Yale and Brown are already reconsidering their policies, and recent rumblings at Penn suggest the university has begun inching away from its longstanding practices.

Perhaps this investigation will be the catalyst to finalize that decision.