Scrutiny Over Black Applicants: ‘Recruit to Deny’

Harvard faces new questions over its admissions practices.

November 25, 2019
(Istockphoto.com/Haizhan Zheng)

Harvard University just won a lawsuit challenging its admissions policies. Judge Allison Burroughs of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts rejected claims that Harvard's affirmative action policies discriminated against Asian American applicants. But evidence submitted to Judge Burroughs is being reviewed by scholars.

Now Harvard is being criticized for the black applicants it rejects. According to a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, looking at students who didn't have the advantage of legacy or athlete status, or weren't the child of a faculty member, "the African American share of applicants grew from 6.4 percent for the Class of 2008 to 10.1 percent for the Class of 2012. Yet, the share of admits who were African American remained unchanged.

"At the same time, the average SAT score of African American applicants fell by 33 points (on an 800-point scale) over this four-year period," the paper noted. There was a "sharp increase in the number of African American applicants whose SAT scores were lower than 550 on any of the SAT subsections. In 2009, the number of African American applicants with scores above 640 was more than double the number of applicants with scores below 550. But for the Class of 2012, there were fewer African American applicants with math scores above 640 than below 550."

In effect, Harvard is being accused of recruiting black applicants to reject them.

Harvard is about 7 percent black.

The paper is by Peter Arcidiacono of Duke University, Tyler Ransom of the University of Oklahoma and Josh Kinsler of the University of Georgia. Arcidiacono was an expert witness in the Harvard trial for Students for Fair Admissions, which sued Harvard, but that group did not provide financial support for the study.

One reason for the sudden surge in applications was a new financial aid policy announced in February 2004, which significantly increased the aid to families with income under $60,000.

The report says Harvard, and other elite colleges, are engaged in a policy of "recruit to deny" black students.

But the report also blames Harvard's recruiting practices. "For example, on the SAT, underrepresented minorities needed to score an 1170 on a 1600 point scale -- a score at roughly the 78th percentile," the report says of Harvard recruits. "The corresponding scores for other groups were much higher. For example, an Asian American male needed a 1380 to qualify for a [recruitment] letter, a score roughly at the 93rd percentile."

A Harvard spokeswoman said, "In a typical year, over 60 percent of the students who end up attending Harvard College were originally on the search list. In a typical year, over 80 percent of minority students who end up attending Harvard College were originally on the search list."

She added, "Harvard has over 40,000 applicants each year for roughly 2,000 spots."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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