On June 15 we saw the latest salvos in the lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions alleging that Harvard University intentionally and systematically discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Both parties filed motions and supporting documents in federal court.
The court filings featured posturing by both sides as well as dueling experts. Students for Fair Admissions engaged Peter Arcidiacono, an economics professor at Duke University, to analyze internal Harvard admissions data, while Harvard countered with David Card, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. To no one’s surprise, each found the other’s analysis flawed.
This lawsuit is one in a series of attempts by Edward Blum, the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, to challenge the use of race in the college admissions process. As a result it is hard to know whether his concern for the plight of Asian-Americans is genuine or strategically convenient. SFFA is fighting this battle in two different courtrooms, the U.S. District Court and the court of public opinion, and it is not altogether clear in which of the two the plaintiff would prefer to prevail.
In the latter court SFFA may, to use a mixed metaphor (actually a mixed martial arts metaphor), have won this latest round on points. The big news arising from the June 15 court filings was the release of internal admissions documents that Harvard had sought to keep private on grounds that its admissions processes and procedures are proprietary. Those documents, which include a 2013 report by the Harvard Office of Institutional Research, suggest that Asian-American applicants consistently receive a lower rating for personal qualities despite receiving higher ratings for academic and extracurricular accomplishments.
The essence of Students for Fair Admissions’ case is that the statistical variance in ratings proves that Harvard intentionally and systematically discriminates against Asian-Americans in admission. SFFA cites the fact that the percentage of Asian-American and other ethnic groups admitted is consistent from year to year as evidence that Harvard engineers arbitrary racial balance in its student body. It also suggests that Harvard’s treatment of Asian-Americans is analogous to its discrimination against Jewish applicants back in the 1920s and 1930s.
I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. Some of the information that has come out in the recent court filings certainly serves as prima facie evidence that Asian-American applicants may be disadvantaged in the admissions process, but I don’t believe that Harvard is discriminating “intentionally” or “systematically” against Asian-Americans. Occam’s razor may state that the simplest explanation is usually correct, but Occam never watched an episode of CSI or dealt with the selective college admissions process. The issues are more complex.
The first of those issues is hyperselectivity. Harvard received 42,749 applications for the Class of 2022, offering admission to 1,962. In a typical year more than four times the number of admits have perfect high school transcripts, and every year there are more applicants with perfect reading or mathematics scores on the SAT than there are places in the class.
In that kind of competition, no individual applicant is guaranteed admission based on academic credentials. But the 4.6 percent admit rate overstates the actual chances for admission. Harvard is not just admitting individuals but building a class, and that class is going to include hooks like recruited athletes, legacies and diversity. For the student without one of those hooks, the actual admit rate is probably below 1 percent.
Lee Coffin, dean of admission at Dartmouth College, has observed that admissions offices evaluate both data (grades, scores) and voice (activities, essays, recommendations). In a hyperselective environment where everyone has superb grades and scores, the student’s voice is what distinguishes applicants.
The second issue is an admission process that is holistic rather than formulaic. I believe in holistic admission, but I also recognize its potential flaws. Holistic admission can mean that different members of the class are admitted for different reasons, one for superior scholarship, another for a compelling essay or ability as a runner or diver, another because of a parent who is a corporate CEO, member of Congress or Harvard alum. Holistic admission, when combined with hyperselectivity, provides immunization from criticism or questioning why an individual applicant didn’t make the cut.
Critics of holistic admission often assume that there must be a secret formula. I would argue that the hidden currency of selective admission is uniqueness. The less there is of any talent or quality, the more valuable it becomes, and vice versa. And while all of us are unique, few of us are truly unique.
If hyperselectivity and holistic admission serve as mitigating factors for the argument that Harvard discriminates against Asian-Americans, then Harvard’s rating system for applicants raises questions -- and perhaps eyebrows.
Harvard assigns each applicant a rating in four areas -- academic, extracurricular, athletic and personal -- on a scale that is either 1 to 4 (according to Harvard) or 1 to 6 (according to Students for Fair Admissions), with 1 the top rating. The rating in each area, which includes potential for pluses and minuses, leads to an overall rating that is holistic. According to Card, only 7 percent of applicants have ratings of two or better in three areas.
An academic rating makes sense. Obviously a student’s academic record is relevant in judging his or her fit as a student for Harvard. I have read that a score of 2+ would signify a perfect or near-perfect high school record, but without evidence of genuine scholarship or academic creativity. Similarly, on the extracurricular side, a student should exhibit significant accomplishment within the school or perhaps regionally in order to receive a 2. Card reports that 42 percent of applicants receive an academic rating of 1 or 2, compared with 25 percent in the other three areas.
But why does Harvard need to assign an athletic rating to every applicant? Card reports that admissions data confirms the importance of the athletic rating, that the admission rate for applicants with an athletic rating of 2 is twice the overall rate. So does that mean that athletic individuals are better candidates for Harvard, or is the athletic rating how Harvard ensures that recruited athletes get a boost in the admission process?
That leads to the personal rating, which is supposed to measure qualities like leadership, integrity, grit, sense of humor, kindness and helpfulness. All of those things are important in building a community, but they are also harder to measure in a college application. If those are soft skills, the rating is even softer, and perhaps even arbitrary. Any rating scale, but especially one devoted to personal skills, is subject to implicit bias on the part of those doing the rating.
Is the issue that Harvard admission officers undervalue Asian-American applicants, consciously or unconsciously? Or is the issue that Asian-Americans are playing an admissions game that no longer exists in this hyperselective admissions landscape, where a strong academic and extracurricular résumé are no longer enough to distinguish an applicant and guarantee admission?
Harvard and other elite colleges are understandably hesitant to advertise what they value in an applicant, and rightly so, because the minute they do, they will spawn a run of applicants looking to match a formula that doesn’t exist as well as a cottage industry of application consultants. But can they at least tell students what they don’t want?
The fact that Asian-Americans are consistently rated lower than other groups in this area is not proof of discrimination, but it is nevertheless suspicious and not easily explained away.