Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard: How Harvard’s Personal Rating Criteria Negatively Impacts Asian American Applicants

Students for Fair Admissions is a non-profit organization that seeks to eliminate the use of racial preferences in college admission decisions.[1]  Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard University; the organization claims that Harvard’s admission policies are discriminatory towards Asian American applicants.[2]  Many organizations have filed amicus briefs in support of Harvard and affirmative action programs.[3]  Some of these organizations include the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Harvard student groups.[4]  In addition to these organizations, over “70 colleges, universities and alumni and student groups” have submitted briefs in support of Harvard.[5]

Students for Fair Admissions argues that Harvard holds Asian American applicants to a higher standard than other applicants.[6]  The organization bases its claim on an internal study that was conducted by Harvard.[7]  In the 2013 internal report, the college found that its admissions process negatively impacted Asian American applicants.[8]  Even though the report revealed that Harvard’s admissions process negatively impacted Asian American students, admissions officials at the school did nothing to remedy the problem.[9]

One aspect of Harvard’s admissions process that Students for Fair Admissions is challenging is the personal rating evaluation.[10]   For the personal rating evaluation, admissions officers consider an applicant’s personal characteristics such as “positive personality, likability, kindness, and humor.”[11]  Harvard considers applicants’ personal characteristics because the university uses a “holistic” approach to admissions.[12]  A holistic approach to admissions seems reasonable, given that institutions of higher education want well-rounded students.[13]  However, one of the problems with evaluating an applicant based on his or her personal characteristics is that it tends to be very subjective and allows personal biases to come into the evaluation process.[14]

Students for Fair Admissions claims that a bias against Asian American applicants exists because “Asian American applicants earned lower personal ratings from Harvard Admissions officers than did applicants of other races despite earning consistently higher rankings for their academic records.”[15]  In addition to this, evidence of bias against Asian American applicants can be derived from a 1990 report that was conducted by the Department of Education, which revealed that Harvard’s admissions officers had made “stereotypical comments about Asian Americans applicants.”[16]  The report also revealed that admissions officers often described Asian American applicants as “quiet/shy, science/math oriented.”[17]  Because the personal rating factor has disproportionately impacted Asian American applicants, Harvard should set clear guidelines for how to evaluate an applicant’s personal characteristics.

Harvard recently changed its personal criteria rating system, and the new system requires admission officers to not favor extroverts.  Instead, admissions officers are to consider applicants who are reflective or insightful.[18]  Even though Harvard has taken steps to adjust their admission guidelines and remove race from being factored into its scoring for personal traits, the guidelines are still very vague, which can lead to subjectivity and bias.

Furthermore, although Harvard’s personal rating criteria disproportionately impacts Asian American applicants, calling for the elimination of racial preferences in admissions is not the answer.  In Grutter v. Bollinger,[19] the Supreme Court held that race could be used as a plus factor in admissions decisions.[20]  Race should continue to be used as one of many factors in admissions decisions because of past discrimination against minorities in institution of higher education. Instead of trying to eliminate racial preferences, Students for Fair Admissions should be advocating against the advantage given to legacy students.[21]  At Harvard, more than 33 percent of “legacy applicants” were admitted in the past five years.[22]  One could argue that nonminority legacy students benefit from historic discrimination because their relatives were able to attend institutions of higher education, while members of minority groups were not.[23]  Going forward, Harvard should try to create less subjective standards for its personal rating evaluation.  Given that both sides have expressed their likeliness to appeal,[24] the case may reach the Supreme Court and become the next landmark case that changes how colleges and universities evaluate students in the admissions process.


[1] See STUDENTS FOR FAIR ADMISSIONS, https://studentsforfairadmissions.org/about/ (last visited Dec 7, 2018).

[2] See Brittany Ellis, The Harvard Admissions Lawsuit, Explained, Harv. Crimson (November 7, 2016,

11:05 AM), https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2016/11/7/harvard-admissions-lawsuit- explainer/; see also Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College Harvard Corp., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167901, at *11 (D. Mass. Sept. 28, 2018).

[3] Colleen Walsh, Hundreds of experts, scholars back Harvard in admissions suit, The Harvard Gazette (Aug. 3, 2018), https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/08/hundreds-of-experts-scholars-back-harvard-in-admissionssuit/.

[4] See id.

[5] Id.

[6] See Ellis, supra note 2.

[7] Delano Franklin & Samuel Zwickel, Internal Harvard Review Showed Disadvantage for Asian Applicants, Harv. CRIMSON (June 15, 2018), https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2018/6/15/admissions- internal-report/.

[8] See id.

[9] Id.

[10] Delano Franklin & Samuel Zwickel, Harvard, SFFA Dispute ‘Discrimination’ in Lower Personal Scores for Asian American Applicants, Harv. Crimson (June 16, 2018), https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2018/6/16/admissions-suit- arguments/?utm_source=thecrimson&utm_medium=web_primary&utm_campaign=recommend

_sidebar.

[11] Id.

[12] Nicole Hong & Melissa Korn, The Secrets of Getting Into Harvard Were Once Closely Guarded. That’s About to Change., WALL ST. J. (Oct 11, 2018), https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-secrets-of-getting-into-harvard-were-once-closely-guarded- thats-about-to-change-1539272436. 

[13] See Colleges and Employers Seek Well-Rounded Applicants, Not Just Busy Ones, Career Vision (last visited Feb 28, 2019), https://careervision.org/colleges-employers-seek-well-rounded-applicants-just-busy-ones/. But see Think You Need to Be “Well-Rounded” To Get Into College? You Don’t, Niche (last visited Feb 20, 2019), https://www.niche.com/blog/think-you-need-to-be-well-rounded-to-get-into-college-you-dont/ (arguing that colleges want “well rounded classes, not well-rounded students.”).

[14] See Michael S. Cole, et al., Recruiters’ Inferences of Applicant Personality Based on Resume Screening: Do Paper People Have a Personality?, 24 J. Bus. Psychol.5, 5-18. (2009).

[15] See Franklin & Zwickel, supra note 7.

[16] Deidre Fernandes, Harvard History with Asian American Applicants Spotlight, BOS. GLOBE (Oct 17, 2018), https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/10/16/harvard-history-with- asian-american-applicantsspotlight/OjimhpBHcSlu69ob9gytfO/story.html.

[17] Id.

[18] See Delano Franklin, Iris Lewis, Cindy Zhang, Harvard Says Admissions Officers Can’t Consider Race When Assigning Personal Scores, Harv. Crimson (Oct 29, 2018), https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2018/10/29/reading-procedures.

[19] 539 U.S. 306, 334 (2003).

[20] See id.

[21] See Richard D. Kahlenberg, A New Call to End Legacy Admissions, Atlantic (Feb. 14, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/02/when-affirmative-action-benefits-the-wealthy/553313/.

[22] See Delano Franklin & Samuel Zwickel, Legacy Admit Rate Five Times That of Non-Legacies, Court Docs Show, Harv. CRIMSON (June 20, 2018), https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2018/6/20/admissions-docs-legacy/.

[23] See Kahlenberg, supra note 21.

[24] See Deidre Fernandes, What’s Next for Harvard’s Affirmative Action Case? It’s Complicated, Bos. Globe (Nov. 28, 2018), https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/11/24/what-next-for-harvard-affirmative-action-case-complicated/LLt2yAxbXJDEqKJQ5dkx9O/story.html.

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