Racial discrimination complaint filed against Harvard

University officials deny charges, say they examine applicants in an 'individualized, holistic review'

More than 60 Asian-American groups together filed a federal discrimination complaint against Harvard University on Friday, Janet Lorin reports for Bloomberg Business.

The coalition alleges the institution's undergraduate admissions process holds Asian-Americans to higher standards than it does other races. The complaint says that Asian-American students with academic awards, leadership positions, top 1% GPAs, and nearly perfect entrance-exam scores are more likely to be rejected than similar students of other races.

The groups filing the lawsuit say Asian-Americans face limited access to elite institutions because they are being held to quotas similar to the sort that kept Jewish students out of the same schools in early parts of the 20th century.

About 6% of the U.S. population—and 21% of Harvard's most recently admitted class—are Asian-American.

The filing comes about six months after a similar one by Students Fair Admissions, which says Harvard illegally limited the number of Asian-Americans admitted. That lawsuit is pending in Boston federal court.

Related story: Lawsuits regarding race in admissions filed against Harvard, UNC—with more to follow

Thomas Espenshade, an economist and senior scholar at Princeton University's population research office, says Asian-Americans need to score higher than other ethnic groups on the 1600-point math and reading sections of the SAT in order to have an equal shot at admittance: 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points higher than African-Americans.

However, this is not enough to prove discrimination, says Espenshade, because institutions take "soft information," such as letters of recommendation and essays, into consideration as well.

Harvard's response

School officials had not yet seen the complaint as of Friday, but Harvard's general counsel Robert Iuliano says the university's admissions policies comply with the law, citing a 1978 Supreme Court decision that referred to Harvard's admission plan as a legal method.

"The college considers each applicant through an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents, and aspirations," Iuliano says (Lorin, Bloomberg Business, 5/15).

The takeaway: A group of Asian-American organizations filed a discrimination complaint against Harvard University last week, alleging racial bias in the admissions process.


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