Demonstrators protest perceived anti-Asian discrimination in Harvard University's admissions policies in Boston last year.

Lawsuits against Harvard and other colleges allege students of ‘wrong race’ lose out

Across Georgia, high school seniors are racing to meet the Oct. 15 early action deadline for the University of Georgia. And when those decisions come out next month, disappointed applicants who were denied or deferred will question the fairness of the admissions process.

Join the club. How colleges sort and rate applicants confounds many parents and students, especially when it comes to select campuses that reject more candidates than they admit. (We're looking at you, Georgia Tech.)

Admissions officials counter their methods aren't that arcane; they seek out candidates who took the most challenging content their high schools offered, sought opportunities for personal development and volunteerism through school clubs, teams or outside activities and met a few adults along the way willing to write a recommendation about their perseverance and commitment.

A high-profile lawsuit brought by Asian-American students against Harvard University pulled back the curtain on how the country's most elite campus culls applicants. The plaintiffs charged Harvard placed an artificial and illegal limit on academically superior Asian-American applicants to boost admissions of less qualified whites and minorities.

Not so, ruled a federal judge Tuesday, declaring that Harvard's race-conscious admissions, while "imperfect," were legal and essential to ensuring campus diversity.

The 130-page ruling followed a contentious three-week trial a year ago in Boston. Attorneys for Students for Fair Admissions argued that Harvard gave Asian-American applicants lower personal ratings and held them to a higher academic standard. (The lawyers did not present any witnesses who said the Ivy League school rejected them, offering up statistical evidence from Harvard’s admission data.)

Yes, some applicants to Harvard -- and to most colleges -- earn a plus factor or an edge if they're sought-after athletes, offspring of donors, legacies, minorities or residents of an underrepresented area. But federal Judge Allison D. Burroughs said these admissions advantages -- referred to as "tips" by Harvard admissions -- are not limited to race, even including leadership and creative ability, along with geographic, economic and ethnic factors.

"The effect of African American and Hispanic racial identity on an applicant's probability of admission has been estimated at a significantly lower magnitude than tips offered to recruited athletes, and is comparable to tips for legacies, applicants on the dean's or director's interest lists, children of faculty or staff,” she wrote.

(In a footnote, Burroughs said, "Moreover, other tips in the admissions process, like so many facets of modern-day American life, disproportionately benefit individuals in the majority and more affluent group.")

The admissions advantages don't mean Harvard is admitting unqualified students, according to the judge. "Every student Harvard admits is academically prepared for the educational challenges offered at Harvard...In other words, most Harvard students from every racial group have a roughly similar level of academic potential, although the average SAT scores and high school grades of admitted applicants from each racial group differ significantly,” she wrote.

Burroughs emphasized that point multiple times, likely recognizing that qualified applicants denied admission to elite campuses often assume a less-deserving minority snatched their slot.

"Removing attention to race, without a workable race-neutral alternative, would cause a sharp decline in the percentage of African American and Hispanic students at Harvard without resulting in a particularly significant increase in the overall academic strength of the class," she wrote.

Harvard is not the only target of Students for Fair Admissions; it sued the University of North Carolina in 2014 and the University of Texas this spring for their use of race and ethnicity in admissions.

In soliciting plaintiffs for these lawsuits, the Students for Fair Admissions website asks: "Were you rejected from the University of Texas, Harvard or the University of North Carolina? It may be because you were the wrong race."

One of the best explanations for race-conscious admissions was made by Harvard in the 1978 Bakke Supreme Court case that upheld affirmative action:

In Harvard College admissions the Committee has not set target-quotas for the number of blacks, or of musicians, football players, physicists or Californians to be admitted in a given year. At the same time the Committee is aware that if Harvard College is to provide a truly heterogeneous environment that reflects the rich diversity of the United States, it cannot be provided without some attention to numbers. It would not make sense, for example, to have 10 or 20 students out of 1,100 whose homes are west of the Mississippi. Comparably, 10 or 20 black students could not begin to bring to their classmates and to each other the variety of points of view, backgrounds and experiences of blacks in the United States. Their small numbers might also create a sense of isolation among the black students themselves and thus make it more difficult for them to develop and achieve their potential. 

Consequently, when making its decisions, the Committee on Admissions is aware that there is some relationship between numbers and achieving the benefits to be derived from a diverse student body, and between numbers and providing a reasonable environment for those students admitted. 

Your thoughts? 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.