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Supreme Court, President Biden Take Aim at Legacy Admissions

Harvard's legal team and administrators exited the Court at 3 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2022, after nearly five hours of oral arguments.
Harvard's legal team and administrators exited the Court at 3 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2022, after nearly five hours of oral arguments. By Julian J. Giordano
By Rahem D. Hamid and Thomas J. Mete, Crimson Staff Writers

Legacy admissions are under renewed scrutiny following the Supreme Court’s Thursday decision to dramatically curtail the use of race in college admissions.

Though the Supreme Court is divided along ideological lines on the use of race as a factor in admissions, opposing opinions from conservative Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor, the Court’s most senior liberal, found common ground in criticizing Harvard’s practice of giving preference to ALDC applicants — meaning athletes, legacies, primary relatives of donors, and children of faculty or staff — in admissions.

In oral arguments last October, several conservative justices had floated removing legacy preferences as a race-neutral alternative for Harvard’s admissions process.

President Joe Biden also took aim at legacy admissions in a press conference following the decision, announcing that he has instructed the Department of Education “to analyze what practices help build more inclusive and diverse student bodies and what practices hold that back — practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.”

In a concurring opinion released alongside the Court’s decision, Gorsuch — who voted with the majority in Thursday’s ruling — argued that Harvard’s ALDC preferences in its admission process “undoubtedly benefit white and wealthy applicants the most.”

“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,” Gorsuch wrote.

Gorsuch pointed to evidence submitted by Students for Fair Admissions last October that Harvard could “replicate the current racial composition of its student body without resorting to race-based practices.”

“Many other universities across the country, SFFA points out, have sought to do just that by reducing legacy preferences, increasing financial aid, and the like,” Gorsuch wrote.

SFFA contended that if Harvard provided applicants from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds with “just half of the tip it gives recruited athletes” and eliminated all preference in admissions for applicants of donors, alumni, and faculty, they would yield the results that affirmative action policies produce.

“At trial, however, Harvard resisted this proposal,” Gorsuch wrote.

Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 has long defended legacy preferences, with Fitzsimmons saying in a March interview that the policy only gives a “slight tip.”

In her dissent, Sotomayor also blasted legacy admissions but, unlike Gorsuch, argued that Harvard’s continued practice of giving preference to ALDC applicants — who are 67.8 percent white — underscored the need for affirmative action. She referred to statistics provided in oral arguments this fall that showed “ALDC applicants make up less than 5% of applicants to Harvard” despite making up “around 30% of the applicants admitted each year.”

“Stated simply, race is one small piece of a much larger admissions puzzle where most of the pieces disfavor underrepresented racial minorities,” she wrote. “That is precisely why underrepresented racial minorities remain underrepresented.”

In a statement Thursday, former First Lady Michelle Obama wrote that “we usually don’t question” whether students who are children of alumni or had access to “lavish” resources in high school belonged at selective colleges, despite such students being “granted special consideration for admissions.”

“So often, we just accept that money, power, and privilege are perfectly justifiable forms of affirmative action, while kids growing up like I did are expected to compete when the ground is anything but level,” she wrote.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at

—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @thomasjmete.

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