In March 2015, Yale’s admissions office began deleting all evaluative comments from applications of matriculated students. This policy could make it more difficult for the Asian American Coalition for Education to prove the validity of its federal complaint claiming Yale discriminated against Asian-American applicants.
The Department of Justice and the Department of Education picked up the May 2016 complaint in April, according to a letter released to the public from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in September.
Before the 2015 change, the Admissions Office retained all evaluative data on applications, including notes left by admissions officers and interview reports from alumni. Such evaluative data has played a big role in a separate, ongoing lawsuit against Harvard, which also alleged that the university discriminated against Asian-American applicants.
Unlike Yale, Harvard retains all admissions officers’ notes on file. In recent months, as court documents, including some admissions files, came to light, Harvard has received significant backlash for some of the admissions officers’ feedback on applications, including assigning each applicant a personality rating. Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing Harvard, claimed that Asian-American applicants have consistently scored lower on personality ratings than applicants of other races with similar credentials. In court, the group’s lawyer, J. Scott McBride, argued that Harvard systematically uses the ratings to discriminate against Asian-American applicants, according to the Harvard Crimson.
Since Yale does not retain this information, Yukong Zhao, the president of the Asian-American Coalition for Education, told the News that it might be harder for the group to sue the University. Still, he said he was confident in the chances of a lawsuit because of other evidence “of widespread discrimination in admissions.” Zhao said that if Yale deleted any such notes after being notified of the Department of Justice investigation, it would constitute an obstruction of justice.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Jeremiah Quinlan told the News that the University complies fully with all federal and state laws related to educational records and document retention.
The admissions office started deleting evaluative data in response to hundreds of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act requests being filed after a group of anonymous Stanford students brought attention to the fact that the law could be used to gain access to admissions files. The act, known by its acronym FERPA, is a federal law that grants students the right to inspect and review their educational records.
“This was a hard decision to make and one that we did not make lightly,” Quinlan told the News at the time. “Obviously there is a very valuable piece of institutional memory that is lost with this, but we really felt like in order to maintain the best possible selection process, it was important to return to our old policy.”
The old policy, in place until 2008, was to regularly delete all such data.
FERPA expert and Senior Fellow at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers LeRoy Rooker told the News that Yale does not need to maintain any records unless there already exists an outstanding FERPA request to view them. When asked if the lack of files could help Yale in a potential lawsuit, he said “that certainly means less information would be available,” but declined to comment further.
Another FERPA expert, Steve McDonald, general counsel for the Rhode Island School of Design, added that there is “no problem” with Yale disposing of its admissions documents in such a way.
“Students have the right to see records, but institutions have no obligation to maintain documents,” he said.
In 2016, Harvard created a separate position at the Registrar’s Office to accommodate the influx of FERPA requests.
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