No-Nonsense College: Harvard discrimination ruling suggests high schools may hinder Asian-American applicants

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On Tuesday, a federal judge in Boston declared that Harvard College’s admissions policy complies with federal law and does not discriminate against Asian-Americans.

”Harvard’s admissions program has been designed and implemented in a manner that allows every application to be reviewed in a holistic manner consistent with the guidance set forth by the Supreme Court,” ruled Judge Allison Burroughs. “The Court finds no persuasive documentary evidence of any racial animus or conscious prejudice against Asian-Americans.”

The case was brought by Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFFA), which represented Asian-American applicants to Harvard. The group’s head, Edward Blum, has raised millions of dollars from conservative groups to back legal challenges to affirmative action. On Tuesday, Blum pledged to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

The ruling also shined a spotlight on Harvard’s often opaque admissions policy, under which only 4.5% of a record 43,000 applicants were admitted for its incoming freshman class this fall. And although the ruling revealed no systemic discrimination, it showed Asian-Americans consistently fell below white applicants in “personal” qualities, a sensitive area where subjectivity and preconceptions thrive.

Those stereotypes — which we’ll get into later — are not prevalent now among Harvard admissions officers, Judge Burroughs wrote in her 130-page decisions. But they may be alive and well at the high school level, where teachers and guidance counselors give Asian-American applicants less enthusiastic personal recommendations than they do for white students. That may well hurt Asian-American applicants, the judge acknowledged.

Asian-Americans comprise 6% of the U.S. population and 25% of Harvard’s class of 2023, their highest percentage in a decade. (African-Americans and Hispanics together encompass 26% of Harvard’s freshman class.) That’s about in line with Rice University, a private university in Houston, and Stony Brook University, a Long Island-based public university that is one of the nation’s top 10 upward-mobility machines. California Institute of Technology has almost 40% Asian-American enrollment and three campuses of the University of California — Berkeley, Irvine, and San Diego — are in the mid- to high 30% range.

If academics were the sole criterion for admission, there might be even more Asian-Americans wearing crimson each year. But Harvard, like most highly selective colleges, also looks at extracurricular activities, athletic participation and personal qualities in deciding whether to admit a particular applicant. Harvard rates each applicant from 1 to 4 in each of those criteria, with 1 being the highest.

“Asian-American applicants’ disproportionate strength in academics comes at the expense of other skills and traits that Harvard values,” Judge Burroughs wrote.

Asian-Americans way outperformed white applicants in academics, including standardized-test scores, and slightly topped white applicants in extracurricular activities. But they lagged badly in athletics. And some testimony at trial (from a witness for the plaintiffs) suggested “Asian-American identity is associated with a lower probability of being assigned a strong personal rating by an admission officer.”

A 1990 report from the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which investigated possible discrimination against Asian-Americans at Harvard “found recurring characterizations of Asian-American applicants that were broadly consistent with stereotypes.” These included phrases such as “reserved, hardworking,” “quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor” (these were the days before “of course, wants to be a software engineer”) and “extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English.” The OCR concluded there was no systematic discrimination, however.

The judge said Harvard had cleaned up its act since then, but those stereotypes persist — in high schools. Recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors are “among the most significant inputs for the personal rating,” Judge Burroughs wrote, and they’re not giving their best Asian-American students the most ringing endorsements.

“Teacher and guidance counselor recommendations seemingly presented Asian-Americans as having less favorable personal characteristics than similarly situated non-Asian American applicants,” she continued. “It is possible that Asian-American applicants to Harvard are being disadvantaged by biases in their high schools that affect their college applications.”

Unfortunately, that effect cannot be quantified.

The SFFA has compared the situation faced by Asian-Americans with the infamous “Jewish quotas,” which capped admission of Jewish Americans to the Ivy League from the 1920s through the 1960s. They were instituted by presidents like Columbia’s Nicholas Murray Butler and Harvard’s A. Lawrence Lowell, who actually said he was limiting the number of Jewish students to prevent anti-Semitism on campus, surely the ultimate definition of “chutzpah.”

Back then, Jews were considered academic grinds who lacked personal and leadership skills. That led to the current “holistic” admissions policies that include academics, athletics, extracurricular activities and personality.

That system does produce more well-rounded students and a better college experience. And, Judge Burroughs ruled, Harvard clearly showed it does not discriminate against Asian-Americans. But prejudices and stereotypes always lurk just below the surface, and they still have great power, well beyond the reach of the law and all reason.

Now read: Trump administration requires Texas Tech medical school to end use of race in determining admissions

Howard R. Gold is a MarketWatch columnist. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold. Please send comments and ideas to