Is Harvard’s Admission Process Rigged Against Asian Americans?


No sufferings by black Americans, past or present, can justify admitting white students to an elite San Francisco public high school over better-qualified Chinese American students who applied

—Thomas Sowell


Why do Asian Americans consistently suffer from the lowest admission rate to Harvard University?

Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), an organization representing Asian American students, raised the question in November 2014. This week, the Ivy League school finally went on trial for its alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants.

Every year, Harvard goes through more than 40,000 applicants and sends out acceptance letters to less than 5 percent of them. William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions for more than 30 years, was the first witness and revealed key statistics regarding the screening process.

Asian Americans indeed need to score considerably higher on standardized tests to be considered for admission.

It is common for African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans with mid-range SAT scores as low as 1100 out of 1600 to be admitted. Asian Americans, on the other hand, have to reach at least 1350 for females and 1380 for males to join the chosen few.

The dean’s lawyer William Lee denied the allegation of discrimination, claiming that “Harvard never considers an applicant’s race to be a negative.” According to him, the university’s racial policies do not penalize Asian Americans and only seek to encourage more African Americans and Hispanic students to apply in order to “break the cycle.”

If that is the case, however, then why do white students receive a significant advantage over Asian Americans despite the latter’s higher academic achievements? The minimum requirement of 1310 for white high schoolers from Montana and Nevada— Harvard’s least preferred states according to Fitzsimmons—is still lower than that for Asian students.

“That’s race discrimination, plain and simple,” John Hughes, a lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions, offered an explanation.

In fact, what typically drags down an Asian American applicant’s chance of admission is the impossible personality test Harvard employs. SFFA conducted a thorough statistical analysis of over 160,000 student records. It turns out that Admission staff consistently gives lower points to Asian Americans’ subjective traits such as “likability,” “helpfulness,” “integrity,” and “courage.” It remains unclear how and why the university has decided that Asian American students are simply less likable and less brave.

Affirmative action has long been a dividing issue between Asian Americans and other communities of color. Conservative groups and the Republican Party never hesitated to exploit this issue to mobilize Asian American votes. In doing so, they have created a zero-sum game for racial minority groups and successfully pitted Asian Americans against African Americans and Hispanics.

SFFA’s agenda goes beyond the fair treatment of Asian American students. It seeks to remove all consideration of race from the college admissions process.

Now that the case is expected to reach the Supreme Court, conservative politicians like Trump himself sees in it an opportunity not to protect the interests of Asian Americans, but to put African Americans and Hispanics in an even more socially and economically disadvantaged position.

Back in July, the Trump administration revoked the federal guidance on affirmative action set during Obama’s presidency. He formally discouraged the use of race in college admissions and voiced his support for “race-neutral” processes.

In the Harvard case, Trump’s Justice Department published a strongly worded legal brief criticizing Harvard’s current practices.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions also sided with in plaintiff. “No American should be denied admission to school because of their race,” he said in a statement. “As a recipient of taxpayer dollars, Harvard has a responsibility to conduct its admissions policy without racial discrimination by using meaningful admissions criteria that meet lawful requirements.”

While the logic of fair treatment for Asian American citizens holds, it can hardly be argued that Trump’s administration has the rights of minority groups at heart.

The 17 million Asian Americans in this country are more than just pawns in the furtherance of white privilege. The racial stereotype exhibited in Harvard’ records—that Asian Americans are too academically focused and inadequate in other aspects—has a profound impact on the lack of Asian Americans in leadership positions everywhere. Such issues, rather than the repeal of affirmative action, should remain in the center of the Harvard debate.

Featured Image via Reuters

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