General Education

Could Harvard’s Affirmative Action Case Change College Admissions?

Could Harvard’s Affirmative Action Case Change College Admissions?
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Francesca Friday March 12, 2019

As a potential Supreme Court battle looms, Harvard's affirmative action case has unearthed new questions surrounding racial bias, discrimination, and the college admissions system as a whole.

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Considering race as a factor in college admissions is nothing new. Affirmative action, by definition an effort to improve educational and professional opportunities for groups that were previously marginalized and/or continue to be marginalized, has been a subject of debate since the 1970s. More recently, a lawsuit against Harvard University, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, has thrust the conversation back into the spotlight. Let’s explore the potential implications for the college admissions practices that could result from this polarizing case.

What is the Harvard college admissions lawsuit about?

In November 2014 the nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed a lawsuit alleging Harvard employed “racially and ethnically discriminatory policies” in its undergraduate admissions process. The suit claims Harvard rates Asian-American students lower on personality-related metrics (the university scores applicants on “courage” and “likability”) than their white counterparts in an effort to balance the number of incoming Asian-American students. The SFFA’s basic argument is that, because Asian-Americans often outperform white students academically, Harvard was downgrading their personal attributes and holding them to a higher standard than other applicants, to avoid an influx of Asian students. Basically, SFFA claims Harvard’s admissions policy is biased against Asian-American students.

In response, Harvard points to a “holistic review” process by which the university considers all applicants—supporting diversity while also considering factors beyond academics, like extracurricular activities and individual character. Race is one element among many, and Harvard contends that race has never been used against an applicant.

The SFFA v. Harvard trial began in October 2018, and final arguments were presented in mid-February of this year. SFFA’s case against Harvard is important because it’s the first brought on behalf of non-white plaintiffs. In 2008 a “reverse discrimination” case was brought against the University of Texas at Austin. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of UT’s admissions policy.

Could the case against Harvard change the college admissions process at other schools?

If SFFA wins and Harvard’s holistic admissions process is in fact deemed discriminatory, this could result in a change to legislation that removes race entirely as a considertion in college admissions. But, as Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen explained in October 2018, “it is important not to conflate two separate concepts: the legal issue of affirmative action and the factual issue of whether Harvard discriminated against one particular racial group.” In an op-ed for The New Yorker, Suk raises concerns about what constitutes as discrimination and a fair admissions process. Harvard’s best defense, according to Suk, is to prove that “there is no way to fulfill the goal of diversity without suppressing Asian applicants relative to white ones to some degree.”

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs has dismissed SFFA’s claim that race should not be a factor in college admissions, and in the coming weeks will rule on whether Harvard has discriminated against Asian-American students. Like the case against the University of Texas, SFFA vs. Harvard is expected to go to Supreme Court.

Why is racial diversity important in college admissions?

Research shows racial diversity facilitates a successful learning environment. A 2011 meta-analysis of over 20 studies tracked a positive correlation between campus diversity and student engagement.

More recently, a study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management found that race-based recruitment, in which schools encourage minorities to apply who may otherwise forgo it as an option, has the potential to be as effective as affirmative action in achieving diversity when properly executed.

To even the admissions playing field, a 2015 report by the American Council on Education (ACE) suggests schools admit fewer legacy students and give preference to students who transfer from community colleges. The ACE report predicts schools will place less emphasis on SAT/ACT scores in a process lacking affirmative action, citing the fact that minority students have historically scored lower on than white students on these standardized test, due to more limited access to resources like prep courses.

What’s next?

SFFA vs, Harvard affects some schools more than others. Like Harvard, other Ivy League institutions argue that affirmative action is essential to retaining a diverse student body, because the majority of applicants come from privileged white backgrounds. The diversity of incoming classes might decrease if admissions counselors are unable to hand-select students who stand out due for their performance, as well as the diversity they bring to the table.

On the other hand, colleges and universities that already receive highly diverse applicant pools don’t rely on affirmative action to ensure diversity. For those schools, diversity flourishes regardless of if, or how, race is considered in the admissions process.

Affirmative action, while not exactly a bipartisan issue, is heavily entrenched in opposing political camps. The Trump Administration has taken a series of initiatives to roll back Obama-era affirmative action policies.

In 2016, Harvard launched a University-wide Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion to support a diversity of demographics in both students and faculty. On March 5, 2019, Harvard daily newspaper The Crimson reported a pilot “Pulse Survey” to foster “a new set of conversations” on campus. Three days later, on March 8, Harvard Business School announced plans to hire its first-ever Associate Director for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging to create “new metrics that capture students’ experience at the school to understand diversity and belonging, instead of solely relying on demographic numbers.”

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