WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

Is Harvard racist? Before delving into this question, it would be useful to take a look at the admission statistics for the class of 2021. The class can be broken down into 22.2 percent Asian-American, 11.6 percent Hispanic, 14.6 percent African-American, and 2.5 percent Native American or Pacific Islander. However, these statistics show an increase in admission from Harvard’s class of 2010. This class can be broken down into 17.7 percent Asian-American, 9.8 percent Hispanic, 10.5 percent African-American, and 1.4 percent Native American or Pacific Islander. So where’s the problem?

Harvard (and many other elite colleges) are still admitting Asians at a lower rate than any other ethnic group. In other words, it’s statistically more challenging to be admitted as an Asian student than an applicant of equal scores, grades and activities than an applicant of any other race.

WHO IS FILING THE LAWSUIT?

Recently, Students for Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit against Harvard. They claimed that Harvard’s admission policies unfairly require more of Asian American students in order to get in. It has been long known that Asian American students have been held to a higher standard than those of other races when it comes to test scores. In 2004, Princeton University published a study, titled “Admission Preferences for Minority Students, Athletes, and Legacies at Elite Universities” that demonstrated the bias against Asian American students.

The oft quoted study uses the term “bonus” to describe how many extra SAT points an applicant’s race is worth. It was found that African Americans received a “bonus” of 230 points. Hispanics received a bonus of 185 points. But if you were Asian, 50 points were deducted. So for an Asian kid to have a shot at an elite college, his/her SAT scores had to be several hundred points higher to make up for the penalty of being Asian.

The reason for why a higher requirement is placed on Asian kids is still foggy. As of yet, the narrative has been one citing “diversity” and “holistic admission.” Asian students have higher scores and better grades. The lower corresponding admission rates were being chalked up to other factors such as insufficient activities, poor interview performance, and subpar essays.

WHO ENACTS THIS BIAS?

But now these answers have been called into question. A recent New York Times article titled “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says” stirred the pot. The plaintiffs in the case cited evidence from Harvard admission documents that Asian students were rated lower on “personal ratings” than their white peers, even though admissions officers had in many cases never met them. 21.3 percent of White applicants received a rating of 1 or 2 (on a scale of 1 to 6, 1 being the best), while only 17.6 percent of Asian-Americans received that rating.

However, according to Professor Aridiacono (who was doing the analysis on behalf of the plaintiffs), this personality bias disappeared when Asian students were interviewed by alumni. In other words, in alumni interviews, white students had no advantage over Asian students. Clearly, we can’t be judging white kids to have inherently better personalities than Asian ones. That’s not fair. At all.

A common proposed solution to this bias is to switch admissions to a meritocratic system. Asian countries such as India have used the test score alone for years to dictate who gets in, why not adopt the same measure for American schools? True, the ethos of being “self made” is ingrained in American culture: the harder you work, the more you are rewarded. 

But there’s a potential problem with adopting such a perspective too broadly. In our society, many tout the benefits of equal opportunity. But in reality, not everyone has great teachers, protected study time, or private tutors. Not everyone is treated the same way by teachers or administrators.

All this adds up to an achievement gap, likely— in part— caused by race itself. Yes, class is a factor. Yes, culture is a factor. But studies have shown that students of color perform worse than white peers, even when researchers adjust for measures like family income. A pure meritocracy would merely shift the negative bias from Asian Americans to Blacks and Latinos.

HOW DO WE MAKE THINGS FAIR?

Thus the questions stands: How do we make the college admission process more “fair”? There are these two types of racism— one of the historically discriminated against groups of Blacks and Latinos who suffer from systemic bias, and one of the “model minority” of Asian American—pushing and pulling against each other.

This “model minority” bias is exactly what the aforementioned New York Times article showed. If the plantiff’s analysis is correct, Asian kids are being stereotyped. Perhaps relying more on admission interviews could ameliorate this misstep. But the perfect answer to the question “Is Harvard racist,” in any case, isn’t going to be a simple one.

Links for further reading:

https://www.princeton.edu/~tje/files/files/webAdmission%20Preferences%20Espenshade%20Chung%20Walling%20Dec%202004.pdf

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/us/harvard-asian-enrollment-applicants.html

https://www.economist.com/briefing/2015/10/03/the-model-minority-is-losing-patience

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/19/upshot/race-class-white-and-black-men.html

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2015/01/15/five-bleak-facts-on-black-opportunity/