A civil rights group is asking the US federal government to make Harvard University drop its "legacy" policy of giving admissions preference to children of alumni because it overwhelmingly benefits white applicants and disadvantages those who are of color.
The civil rights complaint filed on Monday with the United States Education Department argues that the admissions practice violates federal civil rights law. It was filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit based in Boston, on behalf of black and Latino community groups in New England.
"Why are we rewarding children for privileges and advantages accrued by prior generations?" said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the group's executive director. "Your family's last name and the size of your bank account are not a measure of merit and should have no bearing on the college admissions process."
The complaint came after the Supreme Court ruling on June 29 against race-based affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It severely limits any college's consideration of race in admissions, moving forward.
The court's ruling says colleges must ignore the race of applicants, but schools can still give a boost to the children of alumni and donors, activists have said.
On Monday, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked more than 1,500 colleges and universities to even the playing field in admissions, including by ending legacy admissions.
The complaint, submitted to the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, draws on Harvard data that were revealed in the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court. Records revealed that 70 percent of Harvard's donor-related and legacy applicants are white, and being a legacy student makes an applicant roughly six times more likely to be admitted.
The complaint draws attention to other colleges that have abandoned the practice, including Amherst College in Massachusetts and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
'Purely on merit'
The complaint alleges that Harvard's legacy preference has nothing to do with merit and takes away slots from qualified students of color. It asks the Education Department to declare the practice illegal and force Harvard to abandon it as long as the university receives federal funding.
"A spot given to a legacy or donor-related applicant is a spot that becomes unavailable to an applicant who meets the admissions criteria based purely on his or her own merit," the complaint said. If legacy and donor preferences were removed, it adds, "more students of color would be admitted to Harvard".
Harvard said it would not comment on the complaint.
Agencies contributed to this story.