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The U.S. Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into whether Harvard University discriminates by giving admissions preferences to applicants related to alumni and donors, according to a legal group that filed a federal complaint over the institution’s policies. 

In a Monday letter, the department’s Office for Civil Rights said it will examine whether the university’s donor and legacy preferences in undergraduate admissions amount to racial discrimination. The complaint to the Education Department earlier this month by Lawyers for Civil Rights argued that students who benefit from these admissions practices are overwhelmingly White. 

“Lawyers for Civil Rights welcomes the news we received from the U.S. Department of Education that it has formally opened a federal investigation into our civil rights complaint,” the group said in a statement Tuesday. “As our complaint outlines, these unfair and undeserved preferences are bestowed overwhelmingly on white applicants and systematically harm applicants of color, in violation of federal anti-discrimination law.” 

Around 70% of Harvard’s donor and legacy students are White, according to the group’s complaint. The lawyers also cited research showing that the institution’s applicants related to donors are almost seven times more likely to be admitted compared to other students, and legacy applicants are nearly six times more likely.

Lawyers for Civil Rights argued the need to end these practices is more urgent after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against race-conscious admissions in June. Higher education experts believe the decision will contribute to a lower share of historically marginalized students attending top-ranked colleges like Harvard. 

The group has asked the Education Department to declare Harvard’s admissions practices in violation of Title VI, part of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on race and national origin. The organization also wants the department to ensure Harvard applicants have no way to indicate they are related to alumni, including through admissions essays and interviews. 

When deciding whether to pursue an investigation into a complaint, Education Department staff determine whether it alleges a violation of any laws the Office for Civil Rights enforces and contains enough information to proceed with an inquiry, according to agency policies

Lawyers for Civil Rights brought the complaint on behalf of a few community organizations, such as the Greater Boston Latino Network. 

In a statement, the group called on Harvard to voluntarily abandon donor and legacy preferences. It pointed out other colleges have scrapped these policies, including Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University

Last week, Wesleyan University said it was doing away with legacy policies. The president of the prominent liberal arts college called them “a sign of unfairness to the outside world.”

Nicole Rura, a spokesperson for Harvard, confirmed the Education Department notified the university of the investigation. 

“Following the Supreme Court’s recent decision, we are in the process of reviewing aspects of our admissions policies to assure compliance with the law and to carry forward Harvard’s longstanding commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences,” Rura said in a statement. 

The Education Department confirmed Tuesday it started investigating Harvard. The agency declined to answer further questions.