Harvard Faces Admissions Bias Complaint From Asian-Americans

Photographer: Katarzyna Baumann/Getty Images

A coalition of more than 60 Asian-American groups filed a federal discrimination complaint against Harvard University, claiming racial bias in undergraduate admissions.

Asian-American students with almost perfect college entrance-exam scores, top 1 percent grade-point averages, academic awards and leadership positions are more likely to be rejected than similar applicants of other races, according to their administrative complaint, filed Friday with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Harvard denies any discrimination.

Their complaint, also filed with the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, reflects longstanding concern among academically high-performing Asian-Americans that they are held to a higher admissions standard at elite U.S. colleges. While they represent about 6 percent of the U.S. population and 21 percent of students admitted to Harvard’s freshman class this fall, they say they are being subjected to the kind of quotas that kept many Jews out of the same institutions in the first half of the 20th century.

Percent of Applicants Accepted to Harvard Freshman Class who are Asian-American
Percent of Applicants Accepted to Harvard Freshman Class who are Asian-American

“So many in the Asian-American community have not spoken out,” said Yukong Zhao, 52, an executive at an engineering company and author of a book about Chinese culture who helped organize the groups filing the complaint. “We’ve been largely silent for 20 years.”

‘Holistic Review’

The coalition represents organizations such as the Houston Chinese Alliance, the Pakistan Policy Institute and the Sino Professionals Association, according to the complaint. It didn’t cite any individuals who had allegedly faced discrimination.

While Harvard officials hadn’t seen the complaint, Robert Iuliano, the school’s general counsel said in a statement that the college’s admissions policies comply fully with the law and are essential to the school’s mission.

“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,” Iuliano said.

Affirmative Action

Iuliano cited a landmark 1978 Supreme Court decision on affirmative action that referred to Harvard’s admission plan as an example of a legally sound approach. The treatment of Asian-Americans has factored into the debate over racial preferences for groups such as blacks and Hispanics, which survived a high court challenge in 2013.

The filing marks the second complaint about admissions at Harvard in six months. Last year, Students for Fair Admissions Inc., a group which said it represents unidentified college applicants, filed a pending federal lawsuit in Boston against Harvard’s governing board, alleging that the school illegally limited admissions of Asian-Americans.

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.”

Higher Scores

It also documented that Harvard admitted Asian-Americans at a proportionally lower rate than white applicants even though the Asian-Americans had slightly stronger SAT scores and grades. 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 new complaint also says Asian-Americans suffer in admissions from stereotyping, such as a belief they lack creativity.

Princeton Investigation

In 2011, a rejected Asian-American student filed a complaint with the Education Department against Harvard and Princeton University that was withdrawn the next year. The Education Department’s civil-rights division still has an open investigation against Princeton, stemming from complaints in 2006 and 2008, which included an allegation that the school discriminated against students of Asian background in admissions, according to the Department.

Princeton said it doesn’t discriminate and considers each applicant individually in enrolling a class “that is both excellent and diverse.” A spokesman said the school makes decisions on “a case by case basis.”

Last year, Asian-Americans had the highest mean scores of any racial group on the math and writing sections of the SAT college entrance exam, according to the College Board, the New York nonprofit that administers the exam. On the reading section, they outscore all but white students, whom they lagged only slightly on average. They also win more than their share of academic competitions, the complaint said.

Lower Expectations

Asian-Americans represent 5.6 percent of the U.S. population. At Harvard, Asian-Americans made up 21 percent of the freshman class admitted in March, more than any other group apart from whites. In 2006, the percentage was was 17.7. Harvard this year accepted 5.3 percent of all applicants, second to Stanford University in its selectivity, the schools said.

Asian-American high-school students have lower expectations for getting into top colleges because of their race, said Chunyan Li, an assistant accounting professor at Pace University, who helped recruit groups to join the complaint.

“That to me, as a mother, is really hurtful,” said Li, 46, who has two teenage children. “It is easier for people to rationalize that they are not working hard enough than saying there is systematic discrimination.”

‘Sea Change’

The coalition cited research from a 2009 book co-authored by Thomas Espenshade, an economist and senior scholar at the office of Population Research at Princeton University.

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 1,600 on the math and reading SAT to have the same chance of admission to a private college, the book found.

In an interview, Espenshade said more evidence is needed to prove that Asian-Americans are facing discrimination because the schools evaluate “soft information” such as essays and teacher recommendations. Still, the mounting complaints from Asian-Americans represent a “sea change.”

“In some sense, they’re moving into the mainstream of American democratic participation,” Espenshade said. Once-isolated voices “have become a crescendo.”

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