The Trump Administration in July withdrew Obama-era guidance that gave colleges a wink and a nod to racially discriminate. This means that colleges like Harvard that use racial preferences in admissions will receive more legal scrutiny, and the examination should be instructive.
Between 2011 and 2016, the Obama Education Department issued seven notices advising colleges how they may legally promote racial diversity. The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits racial discrimination by institutions receiving federal funds. But the Supreme Court has held that colleges may consider race in admissions as long it isn’t the “decisive” factor. Quotas and point systems are forbidden.
The Obama department advised colleges to consider race as part of what it called an “individualized, holistic review of all applicants.” Colleges also were urged to consider race-neutral alternatives, but that they need not be adopted if they are “unworkable.” In other words, it’s the thought that counts. Many colleges took the guidance as cover to discriminate.
Harvard’s practices will be the first to be examined under this new spotlight. Students for Fair Admissions has sued the school for discriminating against Asian-American applicants and unconstitutionally favoring other minority groups. The case hasn’t gone to trial, but the plaintiff group’s legal filings based on discovery and depositions are revealing the secrets of Harvard’s use of race.
Consider Harvard’s “holistic” admissions review. Applicants are rated on a scale of one to six on academics, extracurricular activities, athletics and highly subjective “personal” criteria. Admissions officers also assign applicants an overall score.
According to Students for Fair Admissions, Asian-Americans boasted higher extracurricular and academic ratings than all other racial groups. They also received higher scores from alumni interviewers. But they were rated disproportionately lower on personal criteria. Only about one in five Asian-Americans in the top 10% of academic performers received a “2” personal rating. Yet blacks and Hispanics with much lower grades and SAT scores received high personal ratings.