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Internal Harvard study suggested Asian Americans would benefit from ‘academics-only’ admissions

Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)

An internal Harvard University review from five years ago suggested Asian American applicants would be let into the undergraduate college in much greater numbers if academic performance were the only criterion for admission, according to court documents made public Friday.

The review from Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research, uncovered by the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit, appeared to indicate that applicants of Asian descent would constitute 43 percent of the admitted class at the ultra-selective university under a hypothetical “academics-only” model.

But the actual Asian American share of admitted students was 19 percent when extracurricular activities, personal qualities, demographics and other factors were added to the decision-making process, according to a 2013 chart prepared in the review of admission data.

Harvard’s foes in a legal battle over the use of race in admissions said the revelation bolstered their argument that the university is unjustly penalizing applicants who happen to be Asian American.

Students for Fair Admissions alleged in a brief filed in U.S. District Court in Boston that the internal review showed “systematic discrimination” against Asian Americans and that Harvard “killed the investigation.”

Attorneys for Harvard called the internal review “incomplete, preliminary and based on limited inputs.” They said the review was not designed to evaluate whether Harvard was intentionally discriminating and that it “reached no such conclusion.”

The chart was part of a trove of information about Harvard admissions released through new filings in a lawsuit seeking to forbid the Ivy League university from considering race when it selects a freshman class.

The suit, filed in late 2014, has kindled renewed argument about affirmative action in higher education and whether top universities have imposed a hidden ceiling on Asian Americans by giving them lower marks for the personal qualities they display in essays, teacher recommendations and other subjective elements of applications.

Students for Fair Admissions claims Harvard limits entry for Asian Americans in favor of applicants from other groups. Harvard denies the allegations and says its methods conform to race-conscious admission practices the Supreme Court has upheld in the interest of allowing colleges to assemble a diverse class. The university called the suit part of an “ideological” campaign to upend settled law.

The two sides made dueling motions Friday calling on Judge Allison D. Burroughs to rule in their favor through summary judgment, but the case is expected to go to trial in the fall.

How to protect Harvard admission secrets? Judge says it’s like shielding ‘recipe for Coke.’

Late Friday, some of Harvard's records on its internal review of admissions were made public as evidence in the case. Many pages were marked "preliminary draft." Not all of them appeared to bolster the argument of the plaintiffs.

One analysis of data from 2003 to 2012 showed little difference in the admission rates of Asian and white applicants who were not children of alumni or recruited athletes. In six of those years, the Asian applicants were admitted at a slightly higher rate. For both groups, about 5 percent were offered spots in the classes that entered in 2011 and 2012.

This week, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust signaled that the university will vigorously defend its admissions system.

“In the weeks and months ahead, a lawsuit aimed to compromise Harvard’s ability to compose a diverse student body will move forward in the courts and in the media,” Faust wrote Tuesday in an email to students, faculty, staff and alumni. She said the legal opponent “will seek to paint an unfamiliar and inaccurate image” of Harvard admissions. “These claims will rely on misleading, selectively presented data taken out of context,” Faust wrote. “Their intent is to question the integrity of the undergraduate admissions process and to advance a divisive agenda.”

Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, said the information released Friday “definitively proves that Harvard engages in racial balancing, uses race as far more than a ‘plus’ factor, and has no interest in exploring race-neutral alternatives. It is our hope that the court will carefully study the statistical, documentary, and testimonial evidence amassed against Harvard and end these unfair and unlawful practices.”

Blum backed previous litigation challenging race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas, an effort that fell short at the Supreme Court in 2016.

The latest case sheds light on the usually hidden mechanics of a process of intense interest to college-bound students and families. Harvard is perennially one of the nation’s most selective universities.

In the latest admission cycle, 42,749 applicants sought to enter Harvard’s Class of 2022. The university offered admission to 1,962, fewer than 5 percent. Of those admitted, 22.7 percent were Asian American, 15.5 percent were African American, 12.2 percent were Latino, and 2 percent were Native American. Twelve percent were international students. Harvard says the Asian American share in the admitted class has grown significantly in the last decade.

Students for Fair Admissions secured access to a huge amount of data through 24 depositions and 97,000 pages of documents from Harvard, including 480 application files and a database with information on more than 200,000 applicants. Identifying information was stripped from the files and database.

The data provided a rare glimpse into how Harvard sorts and sifts tens of thousands of applications a year, assigning them numeric ratings from 1 (high) to 4 (low) on academic, extracurricular, personal and athletic qualifications. Pluses and minuses are sprinkled into the ratings. Each file also gets ratings for teacher and counselor recommendations and overall strength. There is also an exhaustive process of reading, review and commentary before the admissions committee votes on an application.

The plaintiff hired Duke University economist Peter S. Arcidiacono to analyze data spanning six years through 2015. He said he found Asian Americans suffer a “significant penalty” relative to white students when Harvard rates their personal qualities and overall applications and when it makes admission decisions. Arcidiacono said he also found race plays a “significant role” in decisions, leaving Asian Americans with lower chances in certain situations than white, African American and Hispanic applicants with similar profiles.

Harvard hired an economist from the University of California at Berkeley, David Card, to review the data. Card disputed Arcidiacono’s analysis, saying the “purported ‘penalty against Asian Americans’ ” does not exist. He said Arcidiacono omitted from his analysis data that would have changed the findings. He also asserted that the Duke economist focused too narrowly on academic achievement, giving short shrift to factors important to Harvard such as extracurricular, personal and athletic ratings.

In an applicant pool brimming with stellar grades and test scores, Card said, “having strong academic credentials is not sufficient.”

The faceoff between experts is likely to be settled at trial, which could begin in mid-October. Separately, the Justice Department is investigating Harvard’s use of race in admissions.