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Harvard Targeted in U.S. Asian-American Discrimination Probe

The U.S. Education Department is probing complaints that Harvard University and Princeton University discriminate against Asian-Americans in undergraduate admissions.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint it received in August that Harvard rejected an Asian- American candidate for the current freshman class based on race or national origin, a department spokesman said. The agency is looking into a similar August 2011 allegation against Princeton as part of a review begun in 2008 of that school’s handling of Asian-American candidates, said the spokesman, who declined to be identified, citing department policy.

Both complaints involve the same applicant, who was among the top students in his California high school class and whose family originally came from India, according to the applicant’s father, who declined to be identified.

The new complaints, along with a case appealed last September to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging preferences for blacks and Hispanics in college admissions, may stir up the longstanding debate about whether elite universities discriminate against Asian-Americans, the nation’s fastest- growing and most affluent racial category.

Photographer: Kelvin Ma/Bloomberg

The Harvard Business School Baker Library steeple rises past the school's motto and shield in Boston. Close

The Harvard Business School Baker Library steeple rises past the school's motto and shield in Boston.

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Photographer: Kelvin Ma/Bloomberg

The Harvard Business School Baker Library steeple rises past the school's motto and shield in Boston.

Like Jews in the first half of the 20th century, who faced quotas at Harvard, Princeton, and other Ivy League schools, Asian-Americans are over-represented at top universities relative to their population, yet must meet a higher standard than other applicants based on measures such as test scores and high school grades, according to several academic studies.

Higher Bar

“Many Asian-Americans live for their children, sacrificing everything to pay phenomenal tuition at these private schools,” said former Delaware Lieutenant Governor S.B. Woo, president of the 80-20 Educational Foundation, an Asian-American advocacy group. “They, at the same time, are very much aware that their kids have to cross a much higher admissions bar.”

Harvard “does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants,” and doesn’t comment on the specifics of complaints under federal review, spokesman Jeff Neal said. Asian-Americans comprised 16 percent of Harvard undergraduates in the 2010-2011 academic year, down from 18 percent in 2005-2006, according to the university’s website.

“Our review of every applicant’s file is highly individualized and holistic, as we give serious consideration to all of the information we receive and all of the ways in which the candidate might contribute to our vibrant educational environment and community,” Neal said.

‘Neutral Fact-Finder’

In a Jan. 11 letter to Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard and to the complainant, notifying them that it would investigate the allegation, the Office for Civil Rights said that the action “in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to its merits. During the investigation, OCR is a neutral fact-finder.”

The agency doesn’t release the names of complainants. While the Office for Civil Rights has the power to terminate federal financial aid to colleges, it almost always negotiates agreements with schools on steps required for compliance, rather than taking enforcement action, the Education Department spokesman said.

Princeton is aware of the 2011 complaint and will provide the government with the requested information, university spokesman Martin Mbugua said. The college, in Princeton, New Jersey, doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race or national origin, he said.

“We make admissions decisions on a case-by-case basis in our efforts to build a well-rounded, diverse class,” Mbugua said.

Fluctuating Rates

The proportion of Asian-Americans among Princeton undergraduates increased to 17.7% this year from 14.1% in 2007- 2008. The rise reflects the tendency of incoming classes to “fluctuate based on the assessment of individual applications” rather than the impact of the federal review, Mbugua said.

A Chinese-American student, Jian Li, filed a complaint against Princeton with the Education Department in 2006, alleging discrimination on the basis of race or national origin. Li, who scored the maximum 2400 on the SAT and 2390 -- 10 points below the ceiling -- on subject tests in physics, chemistry and calculus, was denied admission by Princeton, Harvard, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 2008, the Office for Civil Rights broadened its examination of Li’s complaint into a compliance review of whether Princeton discriminates against Asian-Americans.

‘Substantially Identical’

Because the 2011 complaint against Princeton “raised substantially identical issues,” the agency is folding it into the compliance review, the Education Department spokesman said. Li enrolled at Yale University and later transferred to Harvard, graduating in 2010. He declined to comment, citing concerns about a backlash.

The Education Department received a complaint in September that Yale, in New Haven, Connecticut, rejected an Asian-American applicant on the basis of race, the department spokesman said. The complainant later withdrew the allegation. It also involved the Indian-American student from California, his father said.

Yale is unaware of the complaint, spokesman Thomas Conroy said. Asian-Americans make up 15 percent of Yale undergraduates.

Asian-American applicants have to outperform their counterparts from other backgrounds on the SAT to gain entry to elite universities, recent studies show.

Test Scores

Asian-Americans admitted to the University of Wisconsin’s flagship Madison campus in 2008 had a median math and reading SAT score of 1370 out of 1600, compared to 1340 for whites, 1250 for Hispanics, and 1190 for blacks, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Falls Church, Virginia-based nonprofit group that opposes racial preferences in college admissions.

“Clearly, both whites and Asian-Americans are discriminated against vis a vis African-Americans and Latinos,” said Roger Clegg, the center’s president. “At some of the more selective schools, Asians are also discriminated against vis a vis whites.”

Because many Asian-Americans come from families that arrived in the U.S. relatively recently, they are less likely than whites to qualify for preference as alumni children, Clegg said. “Stereotyping takes place too” of Asian-Americans, he said.

Asian-American students who enrolled at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in 2001 and 2002 scored 1457 out of 1600 on the math and reading portion of the SAT, compared to 1416 for whites, 1347 for Hispanics and 1275 for blacks, according to a 2011 study co-authored by Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono.

Higher Standard

If all other credentials are equal, Asian-Americans need to score 140 points more than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points above African-Americans out of a maximum 1600 on the math and reading SAT to have the same chance of admission to a private college, according to “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal,” a 2009 book co-written by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade.

Budget-strapped state schools such as the University of California at San Diego are reducing enrollment of Asian- Americans to make room for international students from China and elsewhere who pay almost twice the tuition of in-state residents, Bloomberg News reported Dec. 28.

Asian-American organizations are weighing in on both sides of a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Abigail Noel Fisher, a white student who was rejected in 2008 by the University of Texas at Austin. Fisher v. Texas marks the first federal court challenge to affirmative action in college admissions filed since a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, which upheld the use of race by the University of Michigan law school to achieve a “critical mass” of under- represented minority groups such as blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.

University of Texas

The University of Texas automatically admits in-state applicants in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, who make up most of its students. It then considers race in selecting the remainder of its freshman class.

The suit contends that the top 10 percent program is enough to ensure campuswide diversity. The university responds that, without taking race into account, many individual courses would have hardly any black or Hispanic students.

After federal district and appeals courts upheld the university’s position, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the Fisher case. The Justice Department supports the university.

Discrimination

“Asian-American students suffer discrimination at the hands of the University of Texas at Austin,” the Asian-American Legal Foundation said in a friend-of-the-court brief for the plaintiff. While the university justifies its preference for Hispanic applicants as an effort to diversify classrooms, it has more Hispanic students than Asian-Americans, the San Francisco- based foundation said.

With changes in the Supreme Court’s composition since Grutter, including Samuel Alito Jr. replacing the retired Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote the majority ruling, the justices may take the opportunity to strike down race-conscious admissions policies, said Woo, the head of the Newark, Delaware-based 80-20 Educational Foundation.

The foundation plans to submit a brief supporting the plaintiff if the Supreme Court takes the case.

Woo also co-founded a political action committee that endorses candidates who promise to consider Asian-Americans for key positions such as judgeships.

Hiding Racial Identity

“The prevailing college admission policy artificially places highly qualified Asian-American applicants to compete against each other rather than against the general pool of all applicants, instilling such a fear that many Asian-Americans hide their own racial identity” on applications, the committee stated in December.

Four Asian-American organizations backed the University of Texas in a brief to the appeals court, arguing that Asian- Americans benefit from learning in a racially diverse environment.

“It is simply a misstatement to argue that Asian-Americans are victims,” the groups wrote.

There are 14.7 million Americans of Asian descent only, plus 2.6 million who are multiracial including Asian, according to the 2010 U.S. census. The combined 17.3 million comprises 5.6 percent of the population, up 46 percent from 2000. Median household income for single-race Asian-Americans exceeds $65,000, compared with a national average of $50,000. Half of those 25 and older hold college degrees, almost double the national average.

Harvard Revisited

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights first examined Harvard’s handling of Asian-American applicants more than 20 years ago. It turned up stereotyping by Harvard evaluators, such as this comment about one Asian-American candidate: “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor.”

It also documented that Harvard admitted Asian-Americans at a lower rate than white applicants even though the Asian- Americans had slightly stronger SAT scores and grades. Nevertheless, the agency concluded in 1990 that Harvard didn’t violate civil rights laws because preferences for alumni children and recruited athletes, rather than racial discrimination, accounted for the gap.

The issue remains unresolved, said Stephen Hsu, a physics professor at the University of Oregon who blogs about the admissions process.

“The only way to answer these questions is to force these schools to open their data sets,” he said. “College admissions should be transparent.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Dan Golden in Boston at dlgolden@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at jkaufman17@bloomberg.net

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