In a recent article titled “Secrets of Harvard Admission,” the New York Times delved into what goes on behind the closed doors of the most competitive admission process of all. Harvard accepts just 4 percent of its applicants, and the article begins by profiling one who had double 800s on his SATs and perfect 5s on nine AP exams—nine!—and was ranked first in a high-school class of six hundred. And did not get into Harvard. He’s not unique. Harvard could have filled this year’s entering class twice over with applicants whose SATs were perfect.
Against this backdrop, the article explains who does get in to Harvard, and how. In the process it delves into the bureaucratese of the admissions game, the terms of trade Harvard uses—“dockets,” “the lop list,” “tips,” “DE,” the “Z-list”—to construct an undergraduate demographic that fits its vision of diversity, in which perfect SATs are far from the be-all and end-all. Those “dockets” refer to two dozen geographical regions Harvard divides the United States into, giving priority to, say, North Dakota, where applicants are rare, over, say, New York, where they abound. After that, admissions officers rate applications in five categories—academic, extracurricular, athletic, personal, and “overall”—then supply “tip” factors in five more: racial and ethnic minorities; the children of Harvard grads; relatives of a significant donor; children of faculty members; and recruited athletes. At the close of the process, the final list has some students “lopped” off, as the new class is aligned with diversity goals.
The result last year—Harvard’s class of 2021—was 14.6 percent African-American, 22.2 percent Asian-American, 11.6 percent Hispanic and 2.5 percent Native-American or Pacific Islander, according to Harvard’s website. These numbers are notably consistent from year to year—and from one institution to another among the most selective schools.
That consistency is now receiving legal scrutiny via a lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian-Americans in its admission policies. Remember that kid with the perfect scores who didn’t get in? He was Asian-American, and according to the lawsuit, he should have gotten in. The Harvard case is being brought by a conservative group called Students for Fair Admissions, which has filed similar suits against the Universities of North Carolina and Texas, arguing that racial preferences amount to an illegal quota system, and attempting to spur the federal government to withhold funds under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids racial discrimination in programs receiving federal money. It’s this lawsuit, with its mustering of relevant documents, that gave the Times its peek into the secrets of Harvard’s admissions office.
The lawsuit is a kind of Trojan horse. Filed on behalf of Asian-Americans, it has an ulterior goal—namely, to make it harder for colleges and universities to pursue affirmative-action admission policies benefiting African-American and other minorities. (The Trump Justice Department has also focused on discrimination against Asian-Americans at Harvard, with similar evident goals and motives.) There’s a certain cynicism in a special-interest group using Asian-American students as the bulldozer to demolish what it views as an edifice of discrimination against white students. That said, the lawsuit scores some points, as the Times article makes clear in its review of Harvard’s decision-making process—specifically, the use of vague criteria and subjective judgments that clearly disfavor Asian-Americans. As the lawsuit charges, these seem to traffic in stereotypes that work against Asian students, rating them lower on such squishy concepts as “positive personality.” The Times notes that
In the recently unredacted court filings, several Asian-American applicants were described in conspicuously similar terms. One was described as “busy and bright”... Another was “very busy” but “doesn’t go extra mile, thus she looks like many w/ this profile.” Yet another was “bright & busy” but it was “a bit difficult to see what would hold him in during a lop.”.... One student was “so very bright but lacking a DE.” DE, the court papers say, stands for “distinguishing excellence.” Another got a backhanded compliment: “hard worker,” but “would she relax and have any fun?”
Since when is the capacity for fun a qualification for college? It’s hard to disagree with Students for Fair Admission when it charges, in a court document, that “Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.” The group’s brief details the history of anti-Jewish admission policy at Harvard during that era, describing how, in order to stem the increase in Jewish acceptance, Harvard added subjective criteria (character, personality, etc.) to the requirement of academic excellence—thus committing the “original sin of holistic admissions,” the plaintiffs assert, in a trenchant phrase.
But would a less “holistic” approach based purely on academic merit be better, as the lawsuit implies? What, really, is “pure” academic merit, and should it be the only criterion for admission? In a 2013 internal review, Harvard estimated that if only test scores and high-school grades were considered in admissions, the Asian-American population on campus would double to around 43 percent—pretty much exactly what has occurred at UC Berkeley following California’s ban on racial preferences. Harvard also predicted that the number of black and Hispanic students would drop significantly—as it has at Berkeley.