Is Harvard Unfair to Asian-Americans?
NEARLY a century ago, Harvard had a big problem: Too many Jews. By 1922, Jews accounted for 21.5 percent of freshmen, up from 7 percent in 1900 and vastly more than at Yale or Princeton. In the Ivy League, only Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania had a greater proportion of Jews.
Harvard's president, A. Lawrence Lowell, warned that the "Jewish invasion" would "ruin the college." He wanted a cap: 15 percent. When faculty members balked, he stacked the admissions process to achieve the same result. Bolstered by the nativism of the time, which led to sharp immigration restrictions, Harvard's admissions committee began using the euphemistic criteria of "character and fitness" to limit Jewish enrollment. As the sociologist Jerome Karabel has documented, these practices worked for the next three decades to suppress the number of Jewish students.
A similar injustice is at work today, against Asian-Americans. To get into the top schools, they need SAT scores that are about 140 points higher than those of their white peers. In 2008, over half of all applicants to Harvard with exceptionally high SAT scores were Asian, yet they made up only 17 percent of the entering class (now 20 percent). Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in America, but their proportion of Harvard undergraduates has been flat for two decades.
A new lawsuit filed on behalf of Asian-American applicants offers strong evidence that Harvard engages in racial "balancing." Admissions numbers for each racial and ethnic group have remained strikingly similar, year to year. Damningly, those rare years in which an unusually high number of Asians were admitted were followed by years in which especially few made the cut.
The most common defense of the status quo is that many Asian-American applicants do well on tests but lack intangible qualities like originality or leadership. As early as 1988, William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions, said that they were "slightly less strong on extracurricular criteria."
Even leaving aside the disturbing parallel with how Jews were characterized, there is little evidence that this is true. A new study of over 100,000 applicants to the University of California, Los Angeles, found no significant correlation between race and extracurricular achievements.