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The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights -- concluding an investigation that started in 2006 and expanded in 2008 -- has cleared Princeton University of charges that it discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The OCR investigation found that Princeton considered race only in ways consistent with U.S. Supreme Court rulings, and without creating a quota system that limited Asian-American admissions.

The reason Asian-American applicants have such a tough time getting into Princeton, OCR concluded, was that everyone has a tough time getting into Princeton.

Rejected Asian applicants and some Asian-American groups have had high hopes that the investigation would find bias. They have pointed to the very high academic qualifications of Asian-American applicants who are rejected, even as some applicants from other backgrounds and seemingly lesser credentials have been admitted.

Those who complained to OCR, for example, pointed to research by two Princeton scholars, published in Social Science Quarterly, that looked at admissions decisions at elite colleges. The scholars found that without affirmative action, the acceptance rate for African-American candidates would be likely to fall by nearly two-thirds, from 33.7 percent to 12.2 percent, while the acceptance rate for Hispanic applicants probably would be cut in half, from 26.8 percent to 12.9 percent.

While white admit rates would stay steady, the scholars concluded, Asian students would be big winners under such a system. Their admission rate in a race-neutral system would go to 23.4 percent, from 17.6 percent. And their share of a class of admitted students would rise to 31.5 percent, from 23.7 percent.

Or there was the study showing that, at elite colleges, Asian-American applicants need SAT scores that average 140 points higher than white applicants' scores (and higher still than those of black or Latino applicants) to get in. But these studies don't constitute legal evidence, the OCR letter suggests.

But the OCR report -- released by Princeton Thursday -- found that there are so many highly qualified applicants to Princeton that the university rejects many with stellar if not perfect academic records. And OCR found that Asians could also be found among some of the less than perfect applicants, as well.

"The university told OCR that 82 percent of the valedictorians in the applicant pool for the Class of 2010 were not admitted, and over 50 percent of applicants with perfect SAT I scores of 2,400 were not admitted," the OCR report said. "The university added that for the Class of 2010 -- for which the university admitted only 1,790 students -- there were more than 6,300 applicants who had SAT scores of 750 or higher on the math portion of the test, and there were more than 4,800 applicants that year who scored 750 or higher on the verbal portion of the SAT. More than 5,600 applicants for the Class of 2010 alone had GPAs of 4.0 or higher."

Princeton also told OCR (and the agency confirmed), "that less than stellar grades or test scores do not mean that an applicant is automatically foreclosed from admission. OCR in its file review found examples of applicants who did not have the highest quantifiable qualifications, such as grades and test scores, who were nonetheless admitted by the university based on other qualities and the overall strength of their applications. Some of these applicants were Asian.

"The university reported to OCR that the university 'frequently accepted to the Class of 2010 applicants from Asian backgrounds with grades and test scores lower than rejected non-Asian applicants.' The university gave OCR specific examples of Asian-American applicants for the Class of 2010 whose grades and SAT scores were not near the top of the range usually seen by the university’s admissions officers, but who nonetheless were offered admission. These included an Asian-American applicant who had 'only' a 3.45 GPA in high school, but who was a nationally recognized athlete; and two other Asian-American applicants with relatively low GPAs and SAT scores who were notable for other distinctions such as community service, overcoming impoverished backgrounds and working in a family business."

Added the OCR report: "As the university told OCR, regarding the Class of 2010, the university 'denied admission to literally hundreds of non-Asian applicants for the Class of 2010 who were valedictorians, and over three thousand non-Asian applicants with a 4.0 GPA. These non-Asian applicants were not admitted despite the fact that many Asian students who did not have these academic credentials were admitted."

The ruling on Princeton could be significant broadly because the argument that OCR rejected -- namely that incredibly high SAT scores and grades of rejected Asian applicants are key evidence of bias -- continues to be cited by advocates for Asian students. Just this week, the Asian-American Coalition for Education filed a new complaint with OCR on behalf of a rejected applicant to Harvard University. The complaint said that the applicant, an Asian student from Florida, was among the top four students (all Asians) in his class, and that all four were not accepted by any elite universities. Five other students from the high school, with lower scores and credentials but from other backgrounds, did receive such admissions offers.

Significance of Supreme Court Ruling

The OCR letter states that Princeton never disputed that it considers race and ethnicity, along with many other factors, in admissions. But the civil rights office found that what Princeton did was consistent with the 2003 Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the University of Michigan law school's use of race in admissions decisions. OCR said that there was no evidence that Princeton used quotas to reserve slots for members of different groups, or effectively created different admissions tracks for different groups.

In addition, the OCR letter said that there was ample evidence that Princeton truly engaged in "holistic" admissions, in which each candidate was evaluated individually, with race as one factor among many.

"OCR found that the university pursued a broad definition of diversity, for which race and national origin were among many other factors that were considered in the university’s effort to assemble broadly diverse classes of students. Applicants of all races and national origins are able to state, in their applications, how they would contribute to such broad-based campus diversity," the OCR letter said. "Applications for admission asked applicants about extracurricular activities, employment, summer experiences, family background, artistic and musical talents, athletic abilities and activities, geographic residency, and whether the applicant is the first in his or her immediate family to attend college or if he or she has overcome any significant hardships in life. Applicants also have the option of answering, in their applications, the open-ended question posed by the university of 'What Else Would You Like Us to Know?'"

Repeated references to Grutter and other Supreme Court decisions suggest how important it may be to colleges with similar admissions practices that the Supreme Court not restrict the consideration of race in the future. And the Supreme Court will be hearing a case about the University of Texas at Austin in its fall term in which the justices could do just that.

Reading the Files

The OCR review did not just look at the university's policies but at notes in numerous admissions files of students of a variety of backgrounds. In many cases, OCR reported finding no notations about race or ethnicity at all. And in a few cases (but without a pattern) OCR found some mentions of traits that could be related to Asian-American or Asian stereotypes. For example, OCR found references to applicants appearing shy.

In a review of more than 1,000 application files from the Class of 2010, OCR found some cases where race and ethnicity seemed to be a positive factor, and others not -- and OCR found this for Asian and other applicants alike. Positive comments related to race/ethnicity also didn't assure admission. This review was cited by OCR as evidence of nondiscrimination.

"For example, for an applicant attending high school in the U.S., admissions staff commented that 'Polish heritage is neat but not a hook,' and based on other information in the record, the applicant was not offered admission. On the other hand, admissions staff noted that for a Mexican applicant attending high school in the U.S., the individual was a 'cultural add as well'; and based on other information in the record, the applicant was wait-listed (but ultimately not admitted ….). However, for another applicant of Hispanic national origin also attending high school in the U.S., admissions staff wrote that there was 'No cultural flavor' in the application," OCR found. "For another applicant who was wait-listed, admissions staff wrote that the applicant was a 'true American Native … One to do'; however, despite receiving a plus for national origin, this applicant was not ultimately admitted as there were no available spaces for anyone on the waiting list that year."

The OCR report added that its investigation found "the university sometimes considered race and national origin as a 'plus' for an Asian applicant, and sometimes the university appeared to give no significance at all to these factors for Asian applicants. For example, OCR in its file review found Asian-American applicants who were admitted even though there was no indication in their files that their race or national origin was considered. OCR also found examples of Asian applicants who were given a 'plus' for their race or national origin. For example, the reader card for a Pakistani-American applicant from a less privileged section of a Southern state stated that the applicant was 'remarkable,' 'defies the stereotypes, thinks and feels deeply, and is a gloriously achieving student' who had done 'beautiful academic work' at an elite private school despite not being comfortable as a 'poster [child] for diversity' in that setting. This applicant was wait-listed (but not ultimately admitted)."

Reacting to the Findings

Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton, released a statement praising the findings. "I am very pleased that the OCR has concluded this investigation not only with a finding that Princeton did not discriminate on the basis of race or national origin, but that the university’s holistic review of applicants in pursuit of its compelling interest in diversity meets the standards set by the Supreme Court," he said.

But a statement from the Asian-American Coalition for Education criticized the OCR report, finding "its conclusion shocking, disappointing and nonconvincing." The statement questioned why OCR did not gather and analyze data -- similar to studies by researchers on elite universities -- showing that Asian-Americans, on average, need higher grades and test scores to be admitted to such institutions. "This report was unable to disapprove that, if given the same academic and nonacademic qualifications, in majority of cases, race becomes a negative eliminating factor for Asian-American applicants," said the statement.

The coalition added: "As the backbone of American high-tech industries and a key contributor of economic prosperity, hardworking Asian-Americans deserve equal protection under the U.S. Constitution."

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