Complaint alleges bias in elite admissions

The U.S. Department of Education is looking into racial discrimination in admissions at Harvard and Princeton.
The U.S. Department of Education is looking into racial discrimination in admissions at Harvard and Princeton. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

The U.S. Department of Education’s investigation into alleged racial discrimination by Harvard and Princeton universities has prompted discussion about whether discrimination impacts admission processes at the nation’s elite schools.

Harvard and Princeton came under fire last week after Bloomberg reported that an Indian-American student from California, who declined to be identified, had filed complaints with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights claiming he had been denied admission to the schools because of his race. The student’s allegations have stirred discussion among higher education officials and experts as to whether racial discrimination plays a cloaked role in today’s college admissions process. While experts remain unsure whether the allegations have sufficient legal grounding, four of five interviewed said they think the complaints are linked to growing anxiety about the competitiveness of college admissions among Asian-Americans, many of whom who feel the system is unfair.

An increasing number of students from Asian-American families are rejected from the nation’s top colleges and universities each year, four higher education experts said.

“I think the kinds of folks who are suing these institutions reflect a real fear in the Asian-American community,” said OiYan Poon, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The fear is that compared to a white applicant with similar qualifications, the white applicant will be chosen over the Asian-American one.”

Lee Cheng, secretary of the Asian American Legal Foundation — a non-profit organization based in San Francisco — predicted that claims of racial discrimination in college admissions from Asian-American students and their families will likely increase in the next five years.

But Cheng and other experts said such complaints will be difficult to analyze until colleges and universities release admissions data in full — including demographics, legacy status and test scores. If that information were made public, Cheng said he expects the data would show that race and ethnic discrimination do factor into college admissions decisions.

Both Cheng and Stephen Hsu, a physics professor at the University of Oregon who taught physics at Yale from 1995-’98, said Ivy League schools should be more open with their admissions statistics.

“In my opinion, any educational institution, public or private, which receives significant government support should be required to release aggregate admissions data of this kind, which includes information about ethnicity, legacy and athletic status, and all other variables of significant weight in the admissions decision,” Hsu said in a Sunday email. “Transparency is essential to this important discussion, and the requirement could easily be mandated by the Department of Education.”

All five higher education experts interviewed also pointed to the holistic criteria that colleges and universities use to evaluate candidates as a factor in perceptions of discrimination among the Asian-American population.

Asian-Americans statistically score better on standardized tests, Poon said, and thus often believe they must have exceptionally high scores to stand out among their peers. But she said that since colleges take into account many factors when making admissions decisions ­— grades, leadership experience, athletics and extracurriculars, among others ­— those standardized test scores alone are likely not the reason why a candidate would be rejected or admitted, and not sufficient evidence of racial discrimination.

Hsu added that Harvard and Princeton reject numerous Asian-American applicants each year who have perfect scores on the SAT, which by itself does not constitute racial discrimination.

Poon said cases like the ones filed against Harvard and Princeton are “unfortunate” because they draw national attention away from “real educational issues” affecting Asian-Americans, such as racialized bullying in schools and poor education in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.

Roughly 700 to 750 students who identified as Asian-American were enrolled at Yale each year between 2005 and 2010, though that number jumped to 812 during the 2011-’12 admissions cycle, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said in a Monday email that Asian-Americans make up at least 15 percent of current Yale undergraduates. Still, Brenzel cautioned that the actual percentage of Asian-American undergraduates would be greater because it would account for multiracial students and Asian-Americans who did not respond to the optional racial identity question on the University’s undergraduate admissions application.

Of the current 812 Yale students who identify as Asian-Americans, 357 are male and are 455 female, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

Correction: Feb. 7

A previous headline for this article referred to a suit alleging racial bias in admissions to elite universities. It is in fact a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education, not a lawsuit.

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