To students vying for a spot at an elite university, there is little as mysterious or unpredictable as the admissions process. How much, or how little, weight college officials give to factors including a student’s race, income, test scores or extracurriculars is a closely guarded secret sauce at selective schools.
Grades and teacher evaluations count, but students also seek to create compellingly hilarious, or inspiring, or zany or erudite essays or videos, and to impress in personal interviews. But what happens when Candidate A, who is admitted, rates virtually identical on paper and in person to Candidate B, who is not admitted?
Answer: a lawsuit.
Since 2014, Harvard has been battling a legal claim that the school systematically discriminates against many Asian-American candidates. The suit, filed by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, says Harvard artificially limits the number of Asian-Americans accepted — imposing a so-called soft quota. The alleged result: Less-qualified white, black and Hispanic candidates gain admission over better-qualified applicants of Asian descent.
In a batch of recently unsealed papers, the plaintiffs’ group says its analysis shows that Asian-Americans rated higher than any other racial or ethnic group on admissions measures such as test scores, grades and extracurricular activities, the New York Times reports. But they were ranked lower on personal traits: “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected.” Those lower ratings cut their chances of admission.
Harvard defends its admissions process, calling such allegations misleading and inaccurate, in part because they underplay critical factors such as personal essays or teacher recommendations. The university argues that it has significantly increased Asian-American acceptances in the last decade, although the overall percentage of Asian-American students has stayed fairly steady. The admitted class of 2021 is 22.2 percent Asian-American, the school reports.
Reality: There is no such thing as a completely objective admissions process. Students are selected on the basis of criteria created by humans, whose innate and sometimes intentional biases can affect their evaluations.
Every university, private and public, grapples with a collision of values as it fills its classes. One value is equal opportunity. The schools say they aspire to give every candidate a fair shake, not just based on grades and scores, but on character and other intangibles. That’s fine, provided the last Asian-American candidate is judged exactly the same as the first. Limiting any group’s size would mean the school in effect has unfairly downgraded some applicants before opening their applications.
But another value is in play. Schools seek to create a diverse student body. They want the freedom to accept candidates who bring something unique or otherwise compelling — even if that means rejecting applicants with better academic records.
We’re not predicting how this will turn out. We admire both of those conflicting values. The plaintiffs will attempt to prove that Harvard has a racial quota system that cheats gifted Asian-Americans. Harvard will attempt to prove that its system is fair and legal. The outcome will have repercussions in college admission offices nationwide.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE