Internal Harvard study suggested Asian Americans would benefit from ‘academics-only’ admissions

Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

An internal Harvard University review from five years ago suggested Asian American applicants would be let into the undergraduate college in much greater numbers if academic performance were the only criterion for admission, according to court documents made public Friday.

The review by Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research, uncovered by the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit, appeared to indicate that applicants of Asian descent would comprise 43 percent of the admitted class at the ultra-selective university under a hypothetical “academics-only” model. That was higher than the shares shown for other racial and ethnic groups in the review of admissions data spanning several years.

But the actual Asian American share of admitted students was 19 percent when extracurricular activities, personal qualities, demographics and other factors were added to the decision-making process, according to a 2013 chart prepared through the review.

The chart was part of a trove of information about Harvard admissions released through new filings in a lawsuit seeking to forbid the Ivy League university from considering race when it selects a freshman class.

The suit, filed in late 2014, has kindled renewed argument about affirmative action in higher education and whether top universities have imposed a hidden ceiling on Asian Americans by giving them lower marks for the personal qualities they display in essays, teacher recommendations and other subjective elements of applications.

Harvard’s internal review showed the university has been mindful of such questions for years even as it has championed a practice known as “holistic” admissions, using race as one of many factors, in quest of assembling a diverse class.

Attorneys for Harvard called the internal review “incomplete, preliminary and based on limited inputs.” They said that the review was not designed to evaluate whether Harvard was intentionally discriminating and that it “reached no such conclusion.”

But the plaintiff, a group called Students for Fair Admissions, declared the internal review evidence of illegal bias against Asian Americans. They alleged in a brief filed in U.S. District Court in Boston that the review showed “systematic discrimination” and that Harvard “killed the investigation.”

The case centers on allegations that Harvard limits entry for Asian Americans in favor of applicants from other groups. Harvard denies the allegations and says its methods conform to race-conscious admission practices the Supreme Court has upheld. The university called the suit part of an “ideological” campaign to upend settled law on race in college admissions.

The two sides made dueling motions Friday calling on Judge Allison Burroughs to rule in their favor through summary judgment, but the case is expected to go to trial in the fall.

This week, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust signaled that the university will vigorously defend its admissions system.

“In the weeks and months ahead, a lawsuit aimed to compromise Harvard’s ability to compose a diverse student body will move forward in the courts and in the media,” Faust wrote Tuesday in an email to students, faculty, staff and alumni. She said the plaintiff “will seek to paint an unfamiliar and inaccurate image” of Harvard admissions. “These claims will rely on misleading, selectively presented data taken out of context,” Faust wrote. “Their intent is to question the integrity of the undergraduate admissions process and to advance a divisive agenda.”

Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, said the information released Friday “definitively proves that Harvard engages in racial balancing, uses race as far more than a ‘plus’ factor, and has no interest in exploring race-neutral alternatives. It is our hope that the court will carefully study the statistical, documentary, and testimonial evidence amassed against Harvard and end these unfair and unlawful practices.” Blum was involved in previous litigation challenging race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas.

The case sheds light on the usually hidden mechanics of a process of intense interest to college-bound students and families. Harvard is perennially one of the nation’s most selective universities. Officials say its undergraduate college draws thousands of applicants a year with perfect grades and test scores, making it essential to consider other factors in tandem with academics.

In the latest admission cycle, 42,749 applicants sought to enter Harvard’s Class of 2022. The university offered admission to 1,962, fewer than 5 percent. Of those admitted, 22.7 percent were Asian American, 15.5 percent were African American, 12.2 percent were Latino, and 2 percent were Native American. Twelve percent were international students.

The plaintiff secured access to a huge amount of data through 24 depositions and 97,000 pages of documents from Harvard, including 480 application files and a database with information on more than 200,000 applicants over six years ending in 2015. Identifying information was stripped from the files and database.

The data provided a rare glimpse at how Harvard sorts and sifts tens of thousands of applications a year, assigning them numeric ratings from 1 (high) to 4 (low) on academic, extracurricular, personal and athletic qualifications. Pluses and minuses are sprinkled into the ratings. Each file also gets ratings for teacher and counselor recommendations and overall strength. There is also an exhaustive process of reading, review and commentary before the admissions committee votes on each application.

The plaintiff hired Duke University economist Peter S. Arcidiacono to analyze the data. He said he found Asian Americans suffer a “significant penalty” relative to white students when Harvard rates their personal qualities and overall applications and when it makes admission decisions. Arcidiacono said he also found race plays a “significant role” in decisions, leaving Asian Americans with far lower chances in certain situations than white, African American and Hispanic applicants with similar profiles.

Harvard hired an economist from the University of California at Berkeley, David Card, to review the data. Card disputed Arcidiacono’s analysis, saying the “purported ‘penalty against Asian Americans’ ” does not exist. He also attacked Arcidiacono’s methodology and asserted that the Duke economist focused too narrowly on academic achievement and did not give enough scrutiny to extracurricular, personal and athletic ratings.

In an applicant pool brimming with stellar grades and test scores, Card said, “having strong academic credentials is not sufficient.”

The faceoff between experts is likely to be settled at trial, which could begin in mid-October. Separately, the Justice Department is investigating Harvard’s use of race in admissions.

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