Education Secretary Calls Out Legacy Admissions

legacy admissions
Secretary Miguel Cardona, Department of Education. | Image by Lev Radin/Shutterstock

The practice of favoring donor and legacy admissions at elite colleges has come under scrutiny following the Supreme Court’s decision to ban race-conscious admissions by colleges receiving federal taxpayer dollars.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona raised the issue last week, calling out Harvard University and other Ivy League schools for the alleged lack of fairness in their admission policies.

“I think it’s time in our country that we’re honest about college admission processes and check ourselves. Does this reflect the values of what we want our higher education institutions to be?” Cardona said, according to Politico.

As previously reported by The Dallas Express, the Supreme Court’s ruling banning race-based college admissions practices in June launched the most recent discussion about legacy admissions and lit a fire under some activist groups.

In July, several organizations in the Boston area filed a complaint against Harvard’s donor- and legacy-related admission policies, claiming that they ran counter to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Each year, Harvard College grants special preference in its admissions process … not because of anything [the applicants] have accomplished, but rather solely because of who their relatives are,” the complaint reads.

“Applicants whose relatives are wealthy donors to Harvard, or whose parents are Harvard alumni, are flagged at the outset of Harvard’s admissions process … [They] are significantly more likely to be accepted than other applicants, and constitute up to 15% of Harvard’s admitted students,” the complaint alleges.

Cardona, a first-generation college student who attended a state school in Connecticut, claimed that valuing legacy connections over other factors undermines the spirit of equal opportunity in education.

“[The Supreme Court] said we can’t look at race, but the person’s last name is fine or if somebody writes a check,” Cardona said, per Politico. “We shouldn’t be highlighting or valuing legacy if we can’t take into account other factors that we think would add value.”

It remains to be seen whether Cardona will respond to the complaint by moving to end Harvard’s — and potentially all other institutions’ — legacy- and donor-favoring admission practices.

There is also the question of whether a bill aiming to do so could pass Congress, even though the issue has found bipartisan support.

For instance, as Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told HuffPost, “I think legacy admissions, particularly at the super-elite universities, demonstrate even for them a large amount of hypocrisy, but I’m just not convinced we have the authority to tell them not to do it.”

Some institutions have already made efforts to reduce or eliminate such practices, including Wesleyan University, Virginia Tech, and Carnegie Mellon University.

At the same time, some supporters of donor and legacy admissions argue that the practices help maintain strong alumni ties and yield significant financial support for institutions.

For instance, a Harvard panel claimed the university’s policy of favoring legacy applicants “serves a community-building function” and helps cultivate the image of schooling at the institution as a “lifelong educational engagement.”

A 2022 Pew Research poll suggested that the public strongly supports eliminating legacy admissions, with 75% of respondents saying whether someone’s relative attended a particular school should not factor in the admissions process.

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