(image from Wiki Commons)


For those of you who haven’t been following the case, a group called Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard for discrimination against Asian-American applicants. The suit follows a similar claim brought against Princeton.

As the New York Times reports:

Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected,” according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records filed Friday by a group representing Asian-American students in a lawsuit against the university.

Asian-Americans scored higher than applicants of any other racial or ethnic group on admissions measures like test scores, grades and extracurricular activities, according to the analysis commissioned by a group that opposes all race-based admissions criteria. But the students’ personal ratings significantly dragged down their chances of being admitted, the analysis found.

The court documents, filed in federal court in Boston, also showed that Harvard conducted an internal investigation into its admissions policies in 2013 and found a bias against Asian-American applicants. But Harvard never made the findings public or acted on them.

The lawsuit is being spearheaded by Edward Blum, the legal strategist and American Enterprise Institute fellow who led the Abigail Fisher/UT Austin suit in 2005 and who has devoted a significant part of his career to attacking affirmative action. Presumably, the endgame is to get the case pushed to the Supreme Court, where the newly installed right-wing majority can strike down the use of race/ethnicity as a factor in college admissions.

To be clear, I have no desire to rehash any of the standard arguments involving affirmative action here. They’ve been repeated ad nauseum elsewhere, and there’s little I could contribute that hasn’t been said before.

Rather, what I find interesting about these suits is how they lay bare the contradiction at the heart of holistic admissions, namely that it is possible to judge applicants according to what are ultimately subjective criteria while still somehow identifying those who are truly the most deserving.

A big part of the issue here is linguistic: what I think often gets overlooked is that the term “holistic” is effectively a euphemism for “subjective” – how else could one describe a system that evaluates applicants on traits such as “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected”?

Like all euphemisms, the term was adopted precisely because it sounds innocuous and inoffensive. Holistic sounds… like whole, like wholesome, like something natural and organic, like educating the whole child. Something progressive and innocent and morally virtuous.

But how, exactly, is an adcom supposed to compare the high-school newspaper editor to the star violinist to the kid who works 20 hours a week bagging groceries at the local store? Does varsity athletic participation outweigh community service? Does student government outweigh theater?

Who gets points for what, and how many?

As a recent Slate article pointed out, while certain attributes can increase an applicant’s odds significantly, there is no specific set of factors that guarantees admission to Harvard (although athletic achievement comes close):

42 percent of the 2,501 applicants on [the special interest] list were admitted between 2014 and 2019—highly favorable odds when compared with the 6 percent overall acceptance rate. The applicant is also flagged if he or she is the child of either an alumnus or a faculty or staff member. Applicants who are “legacies” (4,644 between 2014 and 2019) are admitted 34 percent of the time, and children of faculty and staff (321 between 2014 and 2019) are admitted 47 percent of the time.

For the rest of the applicants, the best strategy is to be well-rounded in the four profile areas [academic, athletic, extracurricular, personal]. Getting four 2s in the profile scores, for instance, gives you a 68 percent chance of admissions. Three 2s combined with a poor fourth score (a 3 or 4) gives you a 43 percent chance of admission; this was the winning recipe for nearly 700 admitted students each year.

It’s also possible to get in with a single excellent profile score. [Expert witness David] Card looked at applicants who received a 1 in only one of the four categories and found that acceptance rates for these unidimensional stars were high, but they were exceedingly rare. Applicants with a single academic 1 were admitted 68 percent of the time, but there were only about 100 such applicants in each of the last six admissions cycles. (In comparison, 361 applicants to the class of 2019 had perfect SAT scores.) During the same years, only about seven applicants per cycle got a single 1 in the personal-profile area, and these students were admitted 66 percent of the time. For the 80 or so applicants excelling only in extracurriculars annually, 48 percent were admitted. Numbering more than 200 per year, athletes were the largest group of unidimensional admits and have a whopping 88 percent acceptance rate.

The point is that the definition of “merit” is intended to remain slippery. There is no way to quantify these things – it’s essentially a matter of “squaring the circle” – and colleges have no desire to do so because it leaves them free to define the concept however it happens to suit them at a particular moment in time. The Times later published an article effectively acknowledging that this is the case.

Holistic admissions were, let us recall, first implemented to keep Jews out of the Ivies in the 1920s; and although that approach is today used in the name of social justice, it allows universities to capriciously move the goal posts as they see fit. If Asian/Asian-American applicants are ranked highly for their extracurricular achievements – giving lie to the stereotype of the robotic grind who does nothing but study – then more nebulous attributes such as “character” can be brought in to help them meet their institutional priorities. Admissions offices serve many masters – athletic departments, development offices, alumni offices, and to some extent faculty – and they must adjust their criteria as necessary to keep the various groups satisfied.

One thing I think is important to understand is that these lawsuits deliberately misconstrue the fundamental way in which American college admissions works in order to try to eliminate one specific aspect of the system to which they are opposed.

In reality, the “merit = grades + test scores” argument is not being used to argue that holistic admissions itself is problem, but rather to take aim at the single aspect of it that does not benefit members of already privileged demographics, while leaving the entire rest of the system intact. (The Harvard suit does seem to take into account the fact that rejected applicants scored high in terms of extracurricular achievement, but to my understanding, the extracurricular aspect has been missing from previous suits.)

Crucially, there is no mention of abolishing the tip given to legacies, or athletes, or faculty children, or any other favored group. (As one College Confidential poster succinctly put it, Nobody wants life to be fair, they want life to be unfair in their favor.)

That’s what makes debates around the issue so complex: on one hand, it is blatantly unfair to employ the most subjective of criteria to prevent members of an over-represented group from becoming even more so, but on the other hand, using one minority group as a cudgel with which to beat another, more broadly disadvantaged group is also – to put it nicely – deeply problematic. The fact that Asian-Americans do by and large support affirmative action suggests that they are well aware of this dynamic.

But even if elite colleges are banned from explicitly taking race into account, it’s pretty safe to assume that they will still find a way to do so under the table; holistic admissions is not going away anytime soon. They may, for example, emphasize socioeconomic disadvantage and intensify recruiting efforts in minority-heavy districts. Or they could also follow UChicago’s lead and adopt test-optional policies targeted specifically towards underrepresented groups. The extent to which the numbers drop will largely depend on the individual schools’ resources and commitment to recruiting.

Comparing Harvard to Berkeley – where the number of underrepresented students did drop significantly after the university was barred from considering race – does not seem entirely right here. As a public university, Berkeley is inherently more numbers-driven than Harvard in terms of admissions, and although it is an extremely wealthy institution, it cannot match Harvard’s resources. What Harvard really wants, it will probably find a way to get. The real question is how other universities, ones without Harvard’s financial and cultural clout, will respond.