Asians and Affirmative Action

Groups file complaint with Education Department charging that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

May 18, 2015

More than 60 Asian-American organizations on Friday filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department charging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian-American applicants. By considering race and ethnicity in admissions, the complaint says, Harvard holds Asian-American applicants to a higher standard than it does other applicants and engages in illegal discrimination.

Harvard acknowledges that it considers race and ethnicity in admissions but says that it does so in ways consistent with the law.

The complaint doesn't have a smoking gun of some secret quota for Asian-Americans or a formal policy that limits acceptance rates for Asian-American applicants. But the complaint features research showing that Asian-American applicants to elite colleges and universities appear to need substantially higher test scores and grades, on average, to be admitted than do other applicants. And the complaint notes that elite colleges and universities that do not consider students' race or ethnicity tend to end up with student bodies with greater proportions of Asian students than do those elite colleges that consider race and admissions.

While it remains to be seen how the Education Department will handle the issue, the complaints represent an escalation of attempts by Asian-American groups that oppose affirmative action to challenge the way most top colleges consider race. The arguments are very similar to lawsuits filed in federal court in November seeking to bar Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from considering race in admissions -- and so now Harvard in particular is challenged on multiple fronts.

Further, the complaints make clear that the Asian-American groups believe Harvard is hardly unique among highly competitive colleges -- and so the legal action could well be replicated if the Education Department finds violations.

The complaints arrive as the U.S. Supreme Court could be on the verge of again considering the constitutionality of the consideration of race in admissions. The argument that some minority applicants are hurt by colleges' affirmative action policies could be a powerful one with some justices.

Black and Latino groups (and higher education leaders) have been fairly united in backing affirmative action, but the complaint points to a much more divided Asian-American perspective. That is not to say, however, that there isn't strong support for affirmative action among Asian-American groups that were not involved in Friday's complaint. Indeed, 135 such groups issued a statement on Friday backing the continued consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions.

The Evidence Offered

The complaint points to evidence that Asian-American applicants must outperform not only white applicants, but other minority applicants, to gain admission to top colleges.

For example, the complaint cites the work of Thomas J. Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, who with Alexandria Walton Radford wrote the 2009 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life (Princeton University Press).

The book, based on data about applicants to elite colleges, found that Asian-American applicants who were otherwise similar to white applicants needed a total of 140 more points on the SAT or 3.4 points on the composite ACT to have the same odds of admission as white applicants. Black applicants, the study found, could have the same odds of admission as white applicants even when the black students had SAT scores that were 310 points lower or ACT composite scores of 3.8 points lower than white applicants.

The complaint also points to evidence that when elite colleges consider race, they tend to admit similar shares of Asian-American students. In 2013, according to the complaint, all eight Ivy League institutions (all of which consider race and ethnicity) ended up with Asian-American students making up between 14 and 19 percent of the undergraduate student body.

Then the complaint compares Harvard's entering classes to those of the California Institute of Technology, which does not consider race in admissions. In 2013, according to the complaint, Harvard had 18 percent Asian-American enrollment, while Caltech had 43 percent. Similar studies have shown that Asian-American enrollment is much higher at institutions like the University of California at Berkeley or Los Angeles -- where a voter-approved state measure bans the consideration of race -- than it is at Ivy institutions that consider race.

Harvard's statement about Friday's complaint suggests recent Asian enrollment gains there. But to compare enrollments with data that was not provided either by the Asian groups that filed the complaint or by Harvard, consider the following statistics -- from the U.S. Education Department's College Navigator database. The database shows Harvard, which considers race, having far fewer Asian students than Caltech or Berkeley, but those institutions are far less successful at enrolling black students. The complaint argues that the numbers for Asians at institutions without affirmative action reflect the academic achievements of Asian students, on average, in the applicant pool.

Undergraduate Enrollment by Race at 3 Universities, Fall 2013

Group Harvard Caltech Berkeley
American Indian 0% 0% 0%
Asian 16% 42% 35%
Black 6% 2% 2%
Latino 9% 10% 13%
Native Hawaiian 0% 0% 0%
White 48% 30% 29%
Two or more races 5% 6% 5%
Race unknown 5% 0% 3%
Nonresidents of U.S. 11% 9%


While the complaint notes different applicant pools for different institutions, it says that there is a clear pattern in which the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions hurts Asian-American applicants, forcing young Asian-American children to work harder and to suffer more stress to be on a level playing field with other students.

Harvard issued a statement on Friday saying that its consideration of race in admissions was entirely legal. "In his seminal opinion in Regents of University of California v. Bakke, Justice Powell cited the Harvard College admissions plan in describing a legally sound approach to admissions. Then and now, 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," the statement said.

It added: "As the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, a class that is diverse on multiple dimensions, including on race, transforms the educational experience of students from every background and prepares our graduates for an increasingly pluralistic world. It is and makes possible essential aspects of the college’s mission."


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