A complaint by an Asian American student that racial bias blocked his admission to Princeton University has been expanded by the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights into a broader "compliance review" of the issues involved beyond his case.
The complaint, filed in 2006, has been viewed as significant by critics of affirmative action who argue -- as does the rejected applicant  -- that highly competitive colleges' commitment to diversity results in differential standards for members of different groups, with Asian American applicants held to tougher standards. Many college officials -- most of whom strongly support affirmative action -- have dismissed the applicant's complaint as sour grapes, noting that Princeton each year rejects thousands of well qualified applicants of every racial and ethnic group.
The Education Department, responding to an inquiry, acknowledged the shift of the investigation from focusing on one complaint to Princeton's entire admissions system and its treatment of Asian-American applicants. A department spokesman stressed that converting the investigation did not mean that officials had come to any conclusions about the original complaint. But at the very least, the shift suggests that the government does not view the complaint as frivolous. OCR regularly shuts down complaint investigations, concluding that no violation of the law took place, and the agency has limited resources for compliance reviews. Compliance reviews cover much more ground than any single complaint, tend to take place on issues that the department believes are important, and are sometimes used to nudge other colleges to change policies when they see how one college fared in a review.
Official OCR guidelines give three reasons for converting a single complaint into a compliance review: "(a) the complaint, because of its scope, involves systemic issues; (b) a compliance review would be the most effective means of addressing multiple individual complaints against the same recipient; or (c) the complainant decides to withdraw a complaint that includes class allegations."
Cass Cliatt, a spokeswoman for Princeton, said that the university was pleased by the broadening of the investigation.
"We actually welcome the opportunity to talk about this," Cliatt said. "There are a lot of misconceptions about how colleges and universities use the process. We're happy to explain to OCR how we do this." She stressed that the university in no way discriminates against any applicant on the basis of race or ethnicity.
Princeton received a then-record 17,564 applications to Princeton's class of 2010, the class to which the student who filed the complaint wanted to be admitted. The eventual class that enrolled had only 1,231 students, of whom 37 percent were American ethnic minorities and 14 percent were Asian Americans. Cliatt declined to release information on the SAT averages or grades of applicants of different racial or ethnic groups, saying that Princeton doesn't analyze data in this way and that to do so would be confusing since Princeton does not evaluate individual applicants based on race or ethnicity. "We don't want to have the mistaken belief that we are making categories when we are not," she said.
The student who filed the original complaint against Princeton, Jian Li, arguably landed well after his rejection: He enrolled at Yale University. Li's complaint stated that he received 800s on the mathematics, critical reading and writing parts of the SAT, that he graduated in the top 1 percent of his high school class, that he completed nine Advanced Placement classes by the time he finished high school, and that he had been active in extracurricular activities as well -- serving as a delegate at Boys State, working in Costa Rica, etc. While Li left the ethnicity question blank on his application (as Princeton allows), he said that other questions that he was required to answer -- his name, his mother’s and father’s names, his first language (Chinese), and the language spoken in his home (Chinese) -- all made his ethnicity clear.
In letters sent by OCR to members of New Jersey's Congressional delegation, the investigation of Princeton is described as focusing on the allegation that the university discriminates against Asian American applicants. But Li's complaint and the analysis behind it attempt to shift the debate more broadly to one about affirmative action.
Li is pointing 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, 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.
The complaint and the allegations of anti-Asian bias have been sensitive at Princeton and elsewhere. Princeton, like other elite colleges, changed admissions policies in the 1920s  as the number of Jewish applicants appeared poised to rise, and adopted an emphasis on "character" that scholars say was used to minimize non-Protestant enrollments. While Princeton has long abandoned such policies, some Asian American students see similarities between the treatment of Jewish applicants then and Asian applicants today. Many guidance counselors  at high schools with many top Asian American students report that their Asian American applicants appear to need significantly higher SAT scores or grades to win admission to highly competitive colleges than do members of other ethnic or racial groups.
When Li first filed his complaint, many Asian-American students at Princeton criticized him for not accepting a college denial. But when The Daily Princetonian' s joke issue last year featured a parody of Li, in mock Asian dialect, the satire infuriated many Asian American leaders on the campus and elsewhere and prompted broad debates over the status of Asian Americans at elite colleges.
Just this week, a report  issued by the College Board and a panel of experts on Asian Americans made the case that despite the successes of some Asian American students, more attention needs to be paid to the many who don't get 800 SAT's or take nine AP courses. The report argued that affirmative action does not hold back Asian Americans and cited studies showing that Asian Americans benefit from affirmative action in some cases, such as law school admissions.
The section in the report on affirmative action briefly alluded to the study cited by Li that found that the elimination of affirmative action would get more Asian American applicants admitted to highly competitive colleges. The report argues that there are "no winners" in college systems losing black and Latino students, and warns that a focus on Asian American students and the impact of affirmative action on their admission bids are "excuses not to deal with the failure our education system and the complex and interwoven nature of how race and racism operate in the United States."