How Harvard limits the number of Asian applicants it accepts

A group called Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard contending that the school’s admissions process significantly and unfairly limits the percentage of Asians who are accepted each year. Today the NY Times reports that an analysis of Harvard admissions records filed in support of the group’s lawsuit shows the school is consistently downgrading Asian applicants on subjective personal qualities in a way that reduces their overall admissions rate:

Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than any other race on personal traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected,” according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records filed Friday in federal court in Boston by a group representing Asian-American students in a lawsuit against the university.

Asian-Americans scored higher than applicants of any other racial or ethnic group on admissions measures like test scores, grades and extracurricular activities, according to the analysis commissioned by a group that opposes all race-based admissions criteria. But the students’ personal ratings significantly dragged down their chances of being admitted, the analysis found.

“It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along,” the group, Students for Fair Admissions, said in a court document laying out the analysis. “Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”

So, according to Harvard, it’s not that they are holding back hardworking Asian applicants using vague personal traits, it’s just that so many otherwise talented Asian applicants aren’t likable, courageous, kind, or respected. Wow, okay, Harvard. Are you sure you want to go with that?

And yes, Harvard introduced its more subjective approach to admissions in 1926, in part, to limit the percentage of Jews who were admitted to the school. So this isn’t something new. In fact, there’s more recent evidence from Harvard itself that this same trick is now being used against Asian Americans.

In 2013, Harvard performed an internal review of its admissions process. The review concluded that if the school only considered academic standing when granting admissions, Asian-Americans would make up 43% of the incoming class.

After accounting for Harvard’s preference for recruited athletes and legacy applicants, the proportion of whites went up, while the share of Asian-Americans fell to 31 percent. Accounting for extracurricular and personal ratings, the share of whites rose again, and Asian-Americans fell to 26 percent.

What brought the Asian-American number down to roughly 18 percent, or about the actual share, was accounting for a category called “demographic,” the study found. This pushed up African-American and Hispanic numbers, while reducing whites and Asian-Americans.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim Harvard buried the results of the internal review when it didn’t like what they found. Of course, the fear lurking behind all of this is that exposure of these unfair admissions practices could eventually lead to the end of all affirmative action policies in admissions.

Both sides filed papers Friday asking for summary judgment, an immediate ruling in their favor. If the judge denies those requests, as is likely, a trial has been scheduled for October. If it goes on to the Supreme Court, it could upend decades of affirmative action policies at colleges and universities across the country.

Harvard’s most recent incoming class was 22.2% Asian American. Asian-Americans make up about 5.2% of the U.S. population.