Letter follows far-right Supreme Court majority’s decision gutting affirmative action

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington (August 15, 2023) – Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the HELP Committee, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) today wrote to Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging him to use the Department’s advisory and investigatory authority to even the playing field for college applicants by helping to end preferential treatment for the children of donors and the children alumni, also called legacy admissions.

In June, the far-right U.S. Supreme Court majority’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College once again overturned decades of settled precedent, this time by gutting the use of affirmative action in college admissions. After the Court’s decision, President Joe Biden announced that the Department of Education would examine “practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.”

recent studyby economists at Harvard University found that legacy students were nearly four times more likely to be admitted than other applicants with the same test scores. Legacy students also are more likely to receive admission at 12 highly selective private U.S. colleges, especially if they are from high-income families. At top colleges and universities across the United States, legacy students are more likely to be accepted than both Black and Latinx students combined. At least 102 colleges have voluntarily dropped their legacy admissions since 2015 according to a recent report, including Amherst College, University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  

In their letter to Secretary Cardona, the senators wrote, “The Court’s decision strikes a blow against diversity in higher education while keeping intact harmful practices that advantage the wealthy and well-connected. The U.S. Department of Education must respond. We urge you to immediately take steps to mitigate the impact of this Supreme Court decision, including by using your advisory and enforcement authority to help effectively end preferential treatment given to children of alumni — legacy admissions — and donors, and help ensure a more even playing field for students applying to college.”

“Colleges and universities are a path towards opportunity, but this opportunity should not be locked behind an ivory tower. We must ensure that future generations will not be weighed down by the inequities of our past. We must endeavor to give every student the opportunity to fulfill their educational dreams,” continued the senators.

The senators urged Secretary Cardona to take additional actions to end legacy and donor preference, including by:

  • Providing resources to colleges and universities to support their transitions away from legacy and donor preferences;
  • Aggressively pursuing investigations of complaints regarding legacy and donor preference and other admissions policies that provide preferential treatment;
  • Refusing to provide federal funding to universities that continue to preference legacy and donor admissions to disproportionately benefit affluent, White students; and,
  • Commissioning a report on the detrimental effects of legacy admissions and donor preference.

For decades, Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have voiced concerns about legacy admissions. In 1990, then-Minority leader Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) called for the Department of Education to investigate legacy admissions because they did not pertain to an applicant’s qualification or merit. A decade later, then-Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced legislation requiring schools to report on legacy admissions, and then-President George W. Bush publicly opposed legacy admissions while saying that admissions should only be based on merit.