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Harvard Admissions: Do Asian Students Get a Raw Deal?

Evidence shows Indian, Chinese, Pakistani students are held to far higher standards to limit Asian enrollment, but Harvard denies using quotas.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   20-05-2015

There appears to be subtle injustice at work against Asian-American students. To get into elitist and exclusive Harvard, they need SAT scores that are about 140 points higher than those of their white peers. A lawsuit filed last week on behalf of Asian applicants offers strong evidence that Harvard engages in racial “balancing.”

A coalition of more than 60 Chinese, Indian, Korean and Pakistani organizations is asking the U.S. departments of Justice and Education to investigate possible racial bias in undergraduate admissions at Harvard.

"People from all over the world came to America for equal opportunities. We are trying to bring those principles back to America," said Yukong Zhao, a Chinese-American author who helped organize the coalition. "This isn't just about discrimination and race. It is about justice for everyone, including people of all races, and social and economic statuses."

In 2008, over half of all applicants to Harvard with exceptionally high SAT scores were Asian, yet they made up only 17% 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.

The most common defense of the status quo is that many Asian applicants are brilliant test-takers, 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.”

The lawsuit accuses Harvard and other elite institutions of holding Asians to far higher standards than other applicants, a practice used to limit the number of Jewish students at Ivy League schools in the first half of the 20th century. In 1922, Jews accounted for 21.5 percent of freshmen at Harvard, up from 7 percent in 1900 and vastly more than at Yale or Princeton.

"Harvard’s president, A. Lawrence Lowell, warned that the Jewish invasion would “ruin the college." He wanted a cap: 15 percent...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," pointed out "The New York Times."

We are seeing the same bias play out today against Asians, although Harvard denies the allegations. General Counsel Robert Iuliano said in a statement that Harvard's admissions process is “fully compliant with the law.” He noted the percentage of admitted Asian-American students has increased from 17.6% to 21% over the past decade.

In sharp contrast, at the California Institute of Technology, a selective private college that uses color-blind admissions, Asian enrollment grew steadily to 42.5% in 2013 from 29.8% two decades earlier.

Clearly, elite institutions like Harvard use “holistic” criteria as a way to apply different standards to different applicant groups — e.g., play down objective test scores for Asians, play up subjective recommendation letters for blacks and Hispanics.

Separately, high GMAT scores from China, India have spurred separate rankings for prospective U.S. business school students. The gap between Asian and U.S. students on the math portion of the GMAT has widened. Last year the mean raw score for students in the Asian-Pacific region on that section was 45, above the global mean of 38 and the U.S. mean of 33, according to GMAC data. Asian students’ raw score has risen to 45 from 42 over the last decade.

GMAC said schools had asked for new ways to assess both U.S. and foreign test-takers separately. To address those concerns, GMAC in September last year introduced a benchmarking tool that allows admissions officers to compare applicants against their own cohort, filtering scores and percentile rankings by world region, country, gender and college grade-point average.


Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London.

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