2 New Challenges to Affirmative Action

Lawsuits seek to end considerations of race in admissions at Harvard and U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

November 18, 2014

Two lawsuits filed Monday ask federal courts to block Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from considering race in admissions as the suit charges they are.

The complaint against UNC is based largely off an amicus brief the university filed in 2012 as part of the Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin affirmative action lawsuit, which reached the Supreme Court and is likely to return there soon. The complaint against Harvard charges that the relative stability in the racial make-up of the class shows the use of racial quotas.

Both lawsuits were filed in reaction to the Supreme Court’s opinion last year in the Fisher case, said Edward Blum, who is president of a new group acting as the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions. (He has also been involved in other suits challenging affirmative action.)

In that case, which is still going through the appeals process, the high court decided that university has to demonstrate that race-conscious admissions policies are the only way to achieve its diversity goals.

Harvard and UNC issued statements Monday defending their respective admissions policies.

The plaintiff is a group that includes two 18-year-old college students, including an Asian-American male who was rejected by Harvard and a white male who was rejected by UNC.

The student rejected by Harvard was valedictorian of a competitive high school. He earned a perfect ACT score and an 800 on each of two SAT II subject exams. At UNC, the rejected student earned a 2180 on the SAT, including a perfect reading score, as well as an 800 in SAT II Math and SAT II Physics. He also had a weighted GPA of 4.48 at one of the top high schools in North Carolina. Both students participated in several extracurricular and volunteer activities as well. 

Students for Fair Admissions, which has about 70 members, also includes prospective students of Harvard and UNC, parents of potential students and individuals who have an interest in affirmative action. Blum declined to name the students or the other individuals in the group at this time.

Legal counsel for the plaintiff is being provided by the anti-affirmative-action group Project for Fair Representation, of which Blum is also the president.

What Harvard calls a holistic approach to admissions (in which applicants are reviewed individually, with a range of criteria considered) is actually a disguise for racial balancing in a system where Asian Americans are held to higher standards for admission, according to the lawsuit. As evidence, the lawsuit says that the racial demographics of Harvard’s admitted class, first-year enrollment and total student body have remained stable over the last several years.

Between 1992 and 2013, Harvard’s Asian-American enrollment ranged between 14 percent and 20 percent. On the other hand, CalTech, an elite college that doesn’t consider race in its admissions policies, saw its population of Asian students grow from about 27 percent in the 1990s to more than 40 percent last year.

In 2008, Asian Americans composed 27 percent of Harvard’s applicant pool, 46 percent of applicants who earned above 2200 on the SAT and 55 percent of those students who earned about 2300 and sent scores to Harvard. The statistics in the lawsuit are drawn from recent studies on admissions at Ivy League colleges, the student demographic information Harvard releases publicly and surveys conducted by the student newspaper. 

"In light of Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies, [Asian Americans] are competing only against each other, and all other racial and ethnic groups are insulated from competing against high-achieving Asian Americans,” the lawsuit reads.  

The UNC lawsuit also highlights differences in the academic achievement of different racial and ethnic groups admitted there.

In 2012, for example, the average SAT scores for all admitted Asian-American and white students was 1375 out of 1600. The grade point average was 4.75, using a weighting system that allows for scores above 4.0. The average high school GPA and SAT scores for the “underrepresented minorities” (African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans) were 4.40 and 1269.

The statistics at both universities confirm, according to the lawsuits, that race is the determining feature of applications, not just one component, because there’s no other explanation for the admissions levels for high-achieving white and Asian-American students. The lawsuit rules out differences in either personal achievement or non-academic criteria, since the underrepresented minorities on either campus don’t outperform whites or Asian Americans in those categories.

Both Harvard and UNC could eliminate racial preferences and still achieve diverse student bodies through other means, including giving preferences based on socioeconomic measures or based on the zip codes in which applicants live, since underrepresented minorities tend to be concentrated in specific communities, according to the lawsuits.

Other suggestions include issuing more financial aid or scholarships to attract minority students, encouraging more minority students to apply and eliminating practices such as legacy preferences and early admissions programs.

In the brief that UNC filed in Fisher, the university said that if it were required to use race-neutral admissions, such as a percentage plan where the top students at each high school are guaranteed admittance, nonwhite underrepresented students would increase from 15 percent to 16 percent.

But the change would cause the average SAT scores of the entering class to drop by 56 points, from 1317 to 1262, and would cause slight drop in the average GPA.

The lawsuit calls out UNC for its apparent concern about the significance of a 56-point drop in average SAT scores while there was a 200-point difference in 2012 between the average scores of Asian Americans and the average scores of African Americans who were admitted.

In a statement today, Rick White, associate vice chancellor for communications and public affairs at UNC Chapel Hill, said the university stands by its admissions policy and process. He also wrote that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights determined in 2012 that the university’s use of race in the admissions process is consistent with federal law.

Likewise, Harvard issued a statement saying that the university’s policy is compliant with federal law.

"The college considers each applicant through an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide range of differences:  background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations.”


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