Last week, the U.S. Department of Education dismissed a complaint from a coalition of Asian-American groups alleging that Harvard University unfairly discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The complaint was dismissed because a similar lawsuit filed by a group called the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) was filed in federal court last November, and is still pending.
Here's what SFFA claims about Harvard's undergraduate admissions process:
Harvard is using racial classifications to engage in the same brand of invidious discrimination against Asian Americans that it formerly used to limit the number of Jewish students in its student body. Statistical evidence reveals that Harvard uses "holistic" admissions to disguise the fact that it holds Asian Americans to a far higher standard than other students and essentially forces them to compete against each other for admission. There is nothing high-minded about this campaign of invidious discrimination. It is "illegitimate racial prejudice or stereotype."
The challenge here will be for SFFA to prove that Asian-American students are particularly disadvantaged in applying to Harvard. That could be tricky, considering how difficult it is to be admitted. Since 2012, Harvard's yearly acceptance rate has been below 6 percent, which means that more than 94 percent of all applicants every cycle are rejected. The competition to get into an elite school is insane. Perfect SAT scores and GPAs are commonplace. Being the president of a major high school club is basically a minimum requirement. Achievements are not particularly noteworthy until they are attained at the national level. (The National Merit Scholarship does not count.) There are very, very, very few students for whom Harvard is a "likely" choice. Harvard is a reach for just about any student applying these days. When it is incredibly tough for an applicant of any race to be admitted, how will SFFA establish that it is unusually tough for Asians in particular to be?
In the lawsuit, SFFA cites a 2009 study by Princeton sociologists demonstrating that comparable applicants had to score more than a hundred points higher on the old SAT when they were Asian than when they were white. "Asian Americans needed SAT scores that were about 140 points higher than white students, all other quantifiable variables being equal, to get into elite schools. Thus, if a white student needed a 1320 SAT score to be admitted to one of these schools, an Asian American needed a 1460 SAT score to be admitted."
The study is SFFA's first point of evidence, which is strange considering that the lawsuit and its backers make a point out of emphasizing how diverse Asian-Americans are and how they should be thought of as more than test-acing machines. Yet here SFFA falls back on standardized testing as a reason for why more Asians should be admitted to Harvard. And the argument is scalar, implying that a higher test score should equal a higher chance of admission -- when Harvard's admissions process is holistic, meaning they evaluate the whole candidate. It seems pretty simple for Harvard to argue that SFFA is not taking into account the wide and varied factors that the school considers in its admissions process. That was also the flaw of the Princeton study, which controlled for "quantifiable variables" such as "academic, demographic, and personal characteristics," but did not measure hard-to-qualify details such as extracurricular activities, personal statements, and teacher recommendations. Those are huge chunks of each Harvard application's evaluation -- arguably more so now that intense competition has made the usual statistics less relevant in distinguishing between candidates.
In another section of the complaint, SFFA uses some anecdotal evidence to claim that elite admissions officers too often paint Asian-American applicants with the same brush and dismiss them out of hand:
According to Hunter College High School's director of college counseling, admissions officers at elite universities often complain that Asian American applicants all look the same on paper. "When Harvard calls us back and gives us a brief synopsis of why certain [Asian] kids didn't make it, they'll say, 'There were so many kids in the pool that looked just like this kid.'"
The implication here seems to be that the comment is racial, and that "there were so many kids that looked just like this kid" is a nice of saying "there were too many Asians". But again, it seems easy for Harvard to refer back to its holistic admissions process. Harvard's interest is in creating a diverse campus, not only racially, but in terms of just about anything you can think of. It wants athletes, scientists, disadvantaged students, prep-school students, people who have served in the military, middle-America kids, students who have lived on farms, students with a lot of international experience, humanitarians, future presidents, students raised by single mothers, spelling bee champions, Olympians, you name it. If Harvard can point to a pile of Asian-American applicants and say that they are all similar because they all come from two-parent homes in California, rather than because they are Asian, that is potentially a way of side-stepping the race question altogether.
We see the challenge with holistic admissions in SFFA's plaintiff, an unnamed Asian-American male who was denied admission to Harvard College and subsequently enrolled in a different Top 20 university. At the time of his application, he was ranked first in his class in a school that itself ranked in the top 5 percent of U.S. high schools. He earned a perfect score on the ACT, received two perfect scores on the SAT IIs, and was an AP Scholar with distinction, a National Scholar, and a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist. He also captained the varsity tennis team, "volunteered at a community tennis camp, volunteered for the high school's student peer tutoring program, was a volunteer fundraiser for National Public Radio, and traveled to China as part of a program organized by the United States Consulate General and Chinese American Students Education and Exchange to assist students in learning English writing and presentation skills."
The complaint does not present his personal statement or any teacher recommendations, which are absolutely necessary to understand more about how Harvard would have evaluated him. We know nothing of his character, potential fit at Harvard, or personal motivations. Without that, we have a plaintiff whose test scores and GPA are -- as I mentioned above -- standard for Harvard these days. The fact that he captained the varsity tennis team is interesting, but his volunteer work is meaningless without context as to how much time was put in, whether leadership positions were attained, and why he pursued those particular opportunities. His resume is certainly not enough to guarantee him admission to Harvard -- last year I easily saw half a dozen applicants, both Asian-American and Caucasian (there are not many other applicants where I live), who were at least as competitive as the plaintiff. None of those applicants were admitted.
That's why SFFA will be fighting an uphill battle with its lawsuit. It will be very challenging to prove that Asian-American applicants to Harvard are on a tougher road when elite admissions overall is that difficult.