With the Supreme Court widely expected to strike down race-conscious admissions this summer, another Harvard College admissions practice — legacy and donor preferences — could become collateral damage.
After hearing oral arguments from Harvard and anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions in October, the Supreme Court appears prepared to overturn race-conscious admissions in higher education. In the process, SFFA and other legal experts have criticized Harvard’s long-held leg-up for legacies and children of donors.
Overall, applicants to the College’s classes of 2014 through 2019 faced an acceptance rate of about 6 percent. But this figure was not uniform for all groups: the College admitted 86 percent of athletes, 33 percent of legacy students, 42 percent of students on the dean’s list, and nearly 47 percent of applicants who were children of faculty or staff.
These students are collectively called ALDCs, shorthand for athletes, legacies, dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff.
Critics of legacy and donor preferences say that these preferences reinforce inequality in the admissions process.
In a March interview, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 defended these practices, saying that legacy status gives a “slight tip” in the admissions process.
“It’s been a policy in place at Harvard for a very, very long time, and that’s what our office does,” Fitzsimmons said.
Much of the data concerning the College’s use of legacy preference in the admissions process surfaced during SFFA’s lawsuit against Harvard.
“We wouldn’t really know anything about this process but for discovery during SFFA’s lawsuit,” John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Evan J. Mandery ’89 said. “So that’s kind of one virtuous thing that came out of it — it opens a window into this otherwise opaque admissions process.”
According to the incoming class survey for the Class of 2025, roughly 31 percent of students who had one or more parents attend Harvard reported a family income of $500,000 or more.
Almost 19 percent of respondents who identified as white reported legacy status, while for Asian American, Latinx, and Black respondents, the numbers were 15.1 percent, 9.1 percent, and 6.1 percent, respectively.
Members of the dean’s interest list — a confidential list of applicants compiled by the College every admissions cycle — are often related to top donors, and based on 2018 court filings by SFFA, these applicants benefit from an increased acceptance rate.
According to court documents, 192 students in the Class of 2019 — representing more than 10 percent of the class — were members of the dean’s list or the “Director’s List.”
A 2019 study led by Duke economist Peter S. Arcidiacono, an expert witness for SFFA, found that 43 percent of white admits in the Classes of 2014 through 2019 were ALDCs.
The study also determined that roughly 75 percent of these admitted students would have been rejected if their legacy status, athletic ability, or presence on the dean’s list were not considered in the admissions process.
Arcidiacono’s analysis claimed removing legacy and athlete preferences “results in shifts in admissions away from white applicants with each of the other groups either increasing or staying the same” while reducing the number of high-income applicants admitted to the College.
In response to a free-response question on The Crimson’s 2023 Faculty of Arts and Sciences survey asking for thoughts on Harvard’s admissions policies, 15 of 31 respondents who wrote an answer specifically mentioned legacy admissions in criticisms of the College’s admissions process.
“When Affirmative Action is overruled, we should use this opportunity to end legacy, donor, and athlete preferences as well,” one faculty member wrote.
Mandery criticized Harvard as “resistant to change” and “reinforcing of the existing status quo of the social hierarchy.”
“Harvard does promote opportunity for a handful of poor students of color. But mostly what it does is it takes the accidents of birth, white, rich students who are winners of the natural lottery, and launders their advantage of birth into a degree of sort of objective value,” Mandery said.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on criticisms of admissions preferences for legacies and children of donors.
Julie J. Park — an associate professor of education at University of Maryland, College Park, who previously served as a consulting expert for Harvard during SFFA’s lawsuit — said she thinks legacy and donor preferences are “deeply problematic” and “contradictory towards equity.”
An applicant’s legacy status, Ena Basic ’24 said, “just tells a person that you had a little bit better luck in life.”
Jordan H. Barton ’23 said he believes students are “ambivalent” about legacy and donor preferences because it is the “prevailing ethos” at the College.
“It’s like going to Dartmouth and being like, ‘Do you think day-drinking is a problem?’” Barton said. “It’s just so embedded and part of the school — I don’t know if you can really bring systemic changes to it that don’t go way deeper.”
Emily Handsman, a Harvard College postdoctoral fellow in Sociology, said if you go up to “random Harvard undergrads,” there is a meaningful chance that either they or someone they know benefited from legacy or donor preferences in admissions.
“Even if you’re talking to someone who didn’t have any of those legs up, they made it here,” Handsman added. “I think that at that point you’re focused on ‘Okay, I’m here at Harvard. I might have some impostor syndrome but I made it here. So clearly things are fair enough if I got here.’”
Some critics of legacy admissions and affirmative action link Harvard’s longstanding practices to the College’s past efforts to bar Jewish applicants during the 1920s and 1930s.
“Harvard started using legacy preference as a way to address the rising number of Jewish admitted students,” Massachusetts State Representative Simon Cataldo said.
“It’s really hard, I think, to justify from a moral or historical perspective the continued use of legacy admissions. Donor preference admissions is discriminatory on its face to students who lack generational wealth,” he said.
The College has previously convened several groups to examine its admissions policies. In 2014, the College formed a committee to analyze the role of race in the admissions process and its importance to diversity of the student body.
The group’s work was paused when SFFA filed its initial lawsuit against Harvard, alleging that the College’s use of race in the admission process discriminates against Asian American applicants.
Two years later, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana chaired the Committee to Study the Importance of Student Body Diversity.
In June 2017, Khurana co-chaired the Committee to Study Race-Neutral Alternatives with Fitzsimmons and Engineering and Applied Sciences professor Michael D. Smith.
In a report released in 2018, the committee considered eliminating preference for ALDCs as race-neutral alternatives but concluded that none of these alternatives would achieve diversity without “significant and unacceptable” sacrifice to “other institutional imperatives.”
The report also stated that legacy preference “helps to cement strong bonds between the university and its alumni.”
“Harvard alumni also offer generous financial support to their alma mater. That financial support is essential to Harvard’s position as a leading institution of higher learning; indeed, it helps make the financial aid policies possible that help the diversity and excellence of the College’s student body,” the report states.
Some supporters of legacy preferences argue there is a link between legacy preference and increased alumni donations.
“I think economically, it just makes sense for the University to do. So, I don't have a huge problem with it,” Cormac J. McIntosh ’24 said. “I think that you’re more likely to give money if your children will go on to have the same experiences.”
Texaco U.M. Texeira-Ramos ’26 said being a first-generation, low-income student influenced their perspective on donor admissions.
“I’m FGLI so I am dependent on donors’ donations to be able to afford to attend this university. And so to some extent, if that’s the price to be paid, then so be it,” Texeira-Ramos said.
In response to the report’s endorsement of legacy preferences, Mandery said there is no proof supporting the proposition that ending legacy admissions would “jeopardize important institutional interests.” Instead, there is “significant evidence to the contrary,” he claimed.
Mandery pointed to MIT, which does not prefer children of alumni in its admissions process but maintains an endowment of almost $25 billion.
“I understand the institutional need from the Harvard administration perspective to keep these policies in place but I think they’re quite damaging, perhaps beyond what the administration is aware of,” said Kylan M. Tatum ’25, co-founder of the Affirmative Action Coalition.
Several of the College’s peer institutions have done away with legacy preferences, including Johns Hopkins University, and Amherst College. The admissions office of the University of Pennsylvania this year quietly reworded its admissions website to deemphasize legacy benefits, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported in March.
“As more campuses have moved away from legacy preferences, as far as I know, you haven’t seen a hit to donations in any meaningful way,” Park said.
During oral arguments in October, attorneys for SFFA scrutinized the College’s use of legacy preferences, arguing for the use of race-neutral methods to increase diversity, such as eliminating the consideration of legacy status.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch pushed back against Harvard’s use of legacy preferences, asking Harvard lawyers if eliminating these preferences would increase socioeconomic diversity at the College.
According to Peter F. Lake ’81, an expert in higher education law, the Supreme Court’s impending decision will be a “game-changer” for issues related to the admissions process.
“I don’t think that this litigation will actually end litigation over admissions. I think this is just another step in the process of the courts micromanaging admissions processes,” Lake said. “And so it just seems that one fight begets another.”
Legislation at the state level could also pose problems for the future of the College’s legacy and donor preferences.
The Massachusetts State Legislature is currently considering a bill which would levy fees against universities that continue to apply legacy and donor preferences in their admissions processes, proportional to the size of their endowment.
If the bill were to go into effect, Harvard would have to pay approximately $100 million each year they consider legacy and donor status.
Dane, the Harvard spokesperson, declined to comment on the bill.
Cataldo said he believes state legislation to curtail legacy practices is urgently needed as the Supreme Court is expected to rule on race-conscious admissions this summer.
“Massachusetts needs to be a leader in that regard. If the Supreme Court is going to take away affirmative action for historically disadvantaged students, then we can limit affirmative action for the rich,” Cataldo said.
Mandery said if Harvard attempts to eliminate legacy and donor preference in the wake of a potential overturning of race-conscious admissions, the College could be liable to more litigation.
“The race-neutral principle carried to its logical conclusion would preclude Harvard from ending legacy preference for the purpose of promoting race diversity,” Mandery said.
Mandery said the College’s “explicit preference for white alumni” while arguing for racial diversity before the Court is “ethically hypocritical” and a “legally untenable position.”
“Legacy preference fundamentally compromised their case,” Mandery said. “They can’t use a race-conscious method until they’ve exhausted race-neutral means. And so they have a simple race-neutral mechanism, which is they could end or sharply curtail all of these preferences, which work to the benefit of rich white people.”
Experts say that if race-conscious admissions are overturned, Harvard might seek to also get rid of legacy admissions, but the Court’s ruling is not expected to restrict legacy and donor preferences.
Natasha Warikoo, a Sociology professor at Tufts University, wrote in an emailed statement that she believes the Court is “unlikely to say anything” about legacy admissions policies.
“There is no law against favoring legacies or well-off people — colleges are free to make admissions decisions using almost any criteria,” Warikoo wrote.
“Race is a ‘suspect class’ in the eyes of the law, and must only be used in narrow circumstances, for reasons that a judge approves. This is why affirmative action can be attacked — by using laws designed to protect African Americans — but not legacy or donor-list admissions,” she added.
But Arcidiacono said he does not believe legacy preferences will persist if the Supreme Court rules against race-conscious admissions practices.
“I think it would just not be politically palatable,” he said.
While athletes, legacies, and children of donors or faculty are often lumped together into one category, Park said the College might still give preferential treatment to applicants in certain categories.
“I don’t think the whole ‘ALDC’ is necessarily going to go away in one chopping block,” she said.
Lake said he believes the Supreme Court has “made itself co-chair of the academic admissions process at private schools.”
“Something similar is happening at the state level,” Lake added. “But this is a particularly unusual and historical movement from the point of view of the federal government.”
—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mnamponsah.
—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @HaidarEmma.