Harvard Admissions Policy Under Scrutiny—Again

Harvard is in trouble again. On Friday, over 60 Asian American organizations and associations filed an administrative complaint with the Dept. of Justice and Dept. of Education, alleging discriminatory admissions practices against Asian Americans. The complaint comes just six months following a lawsuit alleging similar claims, and three years following another DOE investigation into possible discrimination against Asian American applicants.

One of the fundamental premises in the complaint is the disparity between demographic growth, especially of Asian American applicants with top-notch qualifications, and actual enrollment at elite institutions such as Harvard. The increase in the number of Asian American students who are categorized as qualified candidates for Harvard (usually defined as those with SAT scores over 2200) and the other Ivies has not translated into higher enrollment level. Colleges that have adopted race neutral admissions practices have seen their share of Asian American students increase drastically.

The new complaint also argues that Harvard’s “holistic review” encourages admissions officers to evaluate Asian American applicants based on racial and cultural stereotypes. The perception that Asian American students somehow lack creativity, leadership skills, and risk-taking unfairly penalizes them during the admissions process. A widely cited 2009 study by Espenshade and Radford shows that students who identify as Asian American need to score 140 points higher on the SAT than a white student, 270 points higher than a Hispanic student and 450 points higher than a black student to find parity. The authors, however, have cautioned that this should not be interpreted as ironclad empirical evidence of discrimination. Their study lacks access to important application materials such as essays and letters of recommendation.

Setting aside the strength of evidence behind the complaint for a second, the more urgent question is how to combat the biases and stereotypes that have plagued the Asian American community. One approach, as suggested by the complaint, calls for better representation of Asian Americans among the decision makers at elite institutions. Unfamiliarity with the various Asian cultures helps to breed racial stereotypes. This cultural alienation also helps to explain the underrepresentation of Asian Americans within corporate America and other parts of society. However, when many qualified Asian American students are being shut out of elite educational institutions in the first place, this approach may be quixotic and does not address the underlying issue.

A more radical approach would be to completely discard the label of “Asian American.” This does mean abandoning the racial and cultural identity, and the enriching experiences that come with it, of being Asian American. Rather, we must recognize that the conception of “Asian American” is deeply flawed. A casual glance at any world map shows the geographical breadth of the Asian countries. Asian American should not be treated as a one-size-fits-all label and the stunning diversity within the community must be recognized.

Certain subgroups within the Asian American community have thrived. Indians, Filipinos, Japanese, and Chinese households have median income that far exceed the American average. The financial success of these groups likely has contributed to the educational achievement of the younger generations. However, other Asian American groups, such as Bangladeshi, Hmong, and Cambodian, fall below the median household income. Moreover, Pacific Islanders have an average poverty rate of 17.6 percent, which is 3.3 percentage points higher than the national average. While Asian Americans tend to have lower than average poverty rate, once household size and cost of living are accounted for, the poverty rate increases by almost 6 percentage points. Treating Asian Americans as a homogenous group neglects both the cultural and economic diversity within the community. Even if one were familiar with various Asian cultures, the outsider may still stereotype an individual based on a homogenous view of that individual’s culture. In this respect, holistic review may have done a disservice to the colleges seeking to promote diversity within their student bodies by focusing on superficial characteristics, something that the process is supposed to avoid. These institutions need to confront their inaccurate impressions of the Asian American community and ask whether some applicants who could have brought unique backgrounds to their campuses were left out simply because they checked a box on their applications: Asian American.



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Jimin is a 2L at HLS. He's interested in civil rights issues affecting Asian Americans as well as historical Supreme Court cases that deal with individual economic rights. Prior to law school, Jimin attended Yale University and received his B.A. in Economics and Political Science.

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