The Harvard admissions trial—often referred to as the Harvard affirmative action trial—comes to an end today. NPR reports the judge in the case isn’t expected to issue a decision until next year, but both sides have already said they will appeal if they lose, so this is expected to go all the way to the Supreme Court eventually.
Harvard’s previously hidden admissions system was the centerpiece of the trial. Statistical experts hired by the plaintiffs found that Asian students had the highest academic and extra-curricular scores but were routinely given lower ratings on a score encompassing personal qualities. Here’s how the Economist explained the plaintiff’s argument last week:
By the admission office’s own ratings, Asian-Americans rank higher than white applicants in both their academic prowess and the quality of their extracurricular activities. Yet their admission rates are much lower. For Asian-Americans in the top decile of academic skill, just 13.4% are admitted, compared with 18.5% of whites (see chart). Asians are scored much worse on another measure of applicant quality—the “personal rating”—by admissions officers. Unlike the other two metrics, personality is judged subjectively and is decided by admissions officers who have not met the applicants. The alumni who conduct in-person interviews rate Asian-Americans as highly as white applicants. To SFFA, this constitutes clear proof of discrimination.
Here’s the Economist graph showing the significant advantage other races have relative to Asians when it comes to admissions:
As noted above, the reason for the difference in acceptance rates is tied to the personal rating Harvard assigns to applicants. It turns out Asian applicants are not rated nearly as highly as applicants of other races on this subjective score. NPR published a graphic today (also based on the plaintiff’s data) which shows how personal ratings for top academic applicants are much higher for other races relative to Asians.
But a statistical expert for Harvard claims this isn’t accurate because the plaintiff’s expert left out legacy applicants and people recruited for athletic reasons. The Economist poured some cold water on that explanation:
Fighting statistics with statistics, Harvard’s lawyers hired David Card, a prominent labour economist at the University of California, Berkeley. His model includes factors like the quality of a candidate’s high school, parents’ occupations and the disputed personal rating. Under these controls, Mr Card claims that Asian-American applicants are not disadvantaged compared with whites. But given that these factors are themselves correlated with race, Mr Card’s argument is statistically rather like saying that once you correct for racial bias, Harvard is not racially biased…
For those unconvinced by fancy maths, the basic statistics also look worrying. Harvard insists that it has no racial quotas or floors, which would fall foul of Supreme Court rulings and jeopardise the university’s federal funding. Yet the share of Asian-Americans it admits has stayed near 20% over the past decade. This is true even as the number of Asian-Americans in high schools has increased. Caltech, a top university without race-based affirmative action, saw its share of Asian-Americans increase dramatically over the same period.
It appears to this observer that Harvard’s process is aimed at creating a certain racial balance at the school, regardless of what their applicant pool looks like. But despite the disadvantage this represents for Asians, the school had several Asian students who testified on behalf of the current admissions process. From NPR:
“I personally benefited from affirmative action,” testified Harvard senior Thang Diep. “It allowed my immigration history [from Vietnam] to be taken into account, and my own experiences to be taken into account.”
But NPR also spoke to one Asian grad student who saw things differently:
Harvard graduate student Natalie Bao Tram Le believes race-conscious admissions need to go.
“I’m definitely much more than my race,” she said. “I care about human rights, about social change. Affirmative action is overlooking the most important features that a person can bring to the table at school, not just the features that we’re born with.”
That strikes me as a much better approach but one that will not be popular with far-left undergrads populating today’s campuses. Fortunately, this decision won’t be up to them in the near or medium term.