Case alleging discrimination at Harvard sheds light on admissions process

Newly revealed details about Harvard University’s admissions process have prompted questions about the university’s criteria for reviewing applicants—and their implications for racial groups—“at a time when issues of race, ethnicity, admission, testing, and equal access to education are confronting schools across the country,” the New York Times reports.

Harvard’s grading system for applicants was revealed last week in a case filing associated with an ongoing lawsuit brought in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions, a group representing Asian-American students who claim systematic discrimination.

The grading system, as explained by the Seattle Times, assigns applicants numeric ratings from 1 (high) to 4 (low) on academic, extracurricular, personal, and athletic qualifications. According to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records filed by Students for Fair Admissions, Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like “‘positive personality,’ likability, courage, kindness, and being ‘widely respected,’” the New York Times reports. The plaintiffs contend that Harvard imposes “a soft quota of ‘racial balancing’,” ultimately keeping the number of Asian-American admitted students lower than it would be otherwise. The Justice Department backs the plaintiff’s claims and separately is investigating Harvard’s use of race in admissions.

Harvard countered that its rating system fairly fosters a diverse campus and enables holistic assessments of the university’s extremely competitive candidates. In a statement, Harvard said the lawsuit’s “incomplete and misleading data analysis paint a dangerously inaccurate picture of Harvard College’s whole-person admissions process by omitting critical data,” saying that a more “thorough and comprehensive analysis…makes clear that Harvard College does not discriminate against applicants from any group.”

With Harvard’s case headed to trial, Inside Higher Ed notes that because the university’s policies resemble those of many other competitive institutions, “a defeat for the university could set legal precedents far beyond Cambridge.”

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