Photo Credit: Coalition for a Diverse Harvard

Here are TEN reasons NOT to fall for the “Asian American Penalty” trap in admissions!

Anti-Asian-American bias is real, but don’t be fooled by Ed Blum’s case against Harvard

Margaret M. Chin, PhD Hunter College and the Graduate Center; OiYan Poon, PhD Colorado State University; Janelle Wong, PhD University of Maryland; Jerry Park, PhD, Baylor University

The Harvard Admissions Case can mess with your mind. On the one hand, we know that the instigator in this case is longtime conservative activist Edward Blum. He has devoted his professional life to attacking affirmative action, minority voting rights, and immigrant political representation. On the other hand, we see constant reports that Harvard’s admissions staff assigned Asian Americans worse personal ratings than any other group. What is going on?

Edward Blum and his organization Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) are pushing a narrative of anti-Asian American bias and discrimination based on “personality.” All of us study Asian Americans for a living, and know all too well that Asian Americans are subject to microaggressions and exclusion based on race and immigrant status. These charges resonate with all Asian Americans. They confirm our worst fears. At the same time, we must remain skeptical of these charges and how they are being used. For instance, the SFFA filing repeats stereotypes that are not in the Harvard files submitted to the court. Some of these images were deployed over 30 years ago, but SFFA could not find them in the recent evidence produced in the lawsuit. SFFA relies on these kind of misleading inconsistencies.

Put simply, it’s a trap. Here are 10 reasons to be cautious in accepting Blum’s assumptions.

  1. There is no evidence of discrimination based on “personality.” The personal rating is not a personality rating. It is an assessment based on elements of the application file, including the teacher and guidance counselor reports and the alumni interviewer ratings. Asian American applicants, as a group, were assigned very slightly weaker personal ratings — only 0.05 points difference between Asian American and White applicants on average. (Asian Americans received from admissions officers an average rating of 2.82 while White applicants had an average of 2.77 — the lower score is better in Harvard’s process). The student essay is another important source of information for the personal rating — as a part of whole-person review, but essays were not assessed by SFFA’s expert. Moreover, witness after witness testified that race is not considered by the admissions office in assigning the personal rating, as outlined by university guidelines for evaluating each individual applicant.

2. The difference in personal ratings assigned by admissions officers and alumni is not evidence of discrimination. SFFA has made much of the fact that the personal ratings given to Asian American applicants by Harvard’s admissions officers were weaker than those given by alumni interviewers, even though admissions officers never met the Asian American applicants. This is misleading because the personal ratings assigned by alumni are not comparable to those assigned by admissions officers. Admissions staff never meets 98% of applicants. Secondly, applicants of all races receive stronger personal ratings from alumni interviewers than from admissions officers, which is not surprising since alumni interviewers each rate only about five applicants per year, while admissions officers, who have access to much more applicant information each rate approximately 1,000 applicants and must, as a group, attempt to make distinctions among about 40,000 applicants each year.

3. No racial group should be expected to have the best score in each category. SFFA’s analysis of the admissions office ratings purports to show that the personal rating assigned to Asian Americans is unexpectedly poorer based on information in the admissions database. But this same analysis shows that the academic and extracurricular ratings for Asian Americans are unexpectedly stronger based on information in the database. If admissions officers were trying to limit the number of Asian Americans, why would they assign them any unnecessarily strong ratings? Also being Asian American has a positive (but statistically insignificant) effect on Asian Americans in various subgroups, including those from California, again countering the idea that there is systemic discrimination (see pages 75–78 of Professor Card, Harvard expert’s report). If Harvard admissions officers were trying to discriminate against Asian Americans, as SFFA illogically claims, they would not give better ratings to Asian Americans from the state with the highest number of Asian Americans.

4. No plaintiff testified to discrimination. No file was shown to contain discriminatory comments. In 1990, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigated the difference in personal rating scores between Asian Americans and other groups of applicants. OCR examined 400 application files and found that the ratings were backed up by information in the files and did not show evidence of discrimination. SFFA had access to 480 application files, plus those of their still unidentified plaintiffs — and could have requested even more (out of the 160,000 applicant pool) — yet did not present evidence from a single file showing discrimination. Nor did they present testimony from a single Asian American student claiming to have been discriminated against.

5. SFFA has misleadingly promoted the idea that the application files are filled with stereotypical comments by admissions officers, but flagged only six comments regarding Asian American applicants, including “very quiet” and “quiet and strong.” But, “very quiet” and “quiet and strong” are comments that appear in notes about White, Latinx and African American applicants, too. There is no evidence that the comments result from racial bias, were untrue, or were even negative. Harvard’s admissions guidelines are clear about valuing a range of personal qualities. The 2013–14 Interviewer Handbook, which is in the evidence, reminds alumni to appreciate “introspection” and “the reflective introvert as well as . . . the future leader.”

6. Other racial groups are not less academically deserving of an elite education. SFFA relies on racial stereotypes of Asian Americans as an academically deserving group and stereotypes of other students of color as undeserving of elite college access, to make their case (as explained in this study). The plaintiffs argue that because Asian Americans, on average score highest on test scores, they should also score best on all other ratings, suggesting that if they don’t, there is intentional discrimination. But there is variation by group across all the admissions criteria. Should all groups view their lower scores, such as on academics, as intentional discrimination by admissions officers?

7. Asian Americans are more likely than other groups both to apply to highly selective institutions and to value prestige of an institution over other factors. This is another way to explain why Asian Americans score slightly weaker in the aggregate on the personal rating. Professor Julie Park suggests in her book Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data, that Black, Latinx, and Native American students, including the highest academic performers, may not be encouraged to apply to Ivy League colleges at the same rate as Asian Americans. Hence, the pool of Asian Americans applying to highly selective institutions may be broader than that of other groups, which may be reflected in the group’s personal score average. Still, there are many Asian American individual applicants scoring very well on this rating. And ratings are not determinative of admission. They are a shorthand for the initial evaluation of files and are put aside when the full admissions committee meets to discuss potential admits. Clearly, with Asian Americans comprising more than one-out-of-five students at Harvard, the current holistic evaluation system is working for Asian Americans, who are able to offer their unique individual stories. The percentage of Asian-American students in the admitted class has grown by 29% in the last decade (see page 19, note 113 of this court filing on material facts of the case). Claims that Asian American admissions rates are capped do not hold up to a review of the the data.

8. Harvard recruits Asian Americans students using multiple methods. Harvard sends recruitment letters regularly to encourage students who would not otherwise think about applying. Outreach to underrepresented groups is one of the “race-neutral alternatives” to race-conscious admissions policies to help maintain racial diversity on campus that even SFFA’s expert, Richard Kahlenberg, vigorously supports. These letters are recruitment letters asking students to apply, not acceptance decisions. They are wholly separate from admissions decisions. The plaintiff in this case, SFFA, misleadingly conflates the two. While Harvard used different PSAT cutoffs for Asian American and White students to target students from rural areas, what SFFA did not show in the trial was that in the years in question, the cutoffs for the ACT, which is the more prevalent test in those states, were exactly the same for Asian Americans and Whites. Further, in other years, Harvard sent recruitment letters to Asian Americans with lower PSAT scores than Whites. The cutoffs are currently the same for Asian Americans and Whites. Again, these “cut-offs” are related to who receives outreach letters encouraging students to apply. Harvard also has an Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program, with Asian American student recruiters dedicated to identifying promising Asian American high schoolers. Asian Americans have been a part of this program since 1976.

9. SFFA’s charge of discrimination is based on cherry-picked data that excludes important applicant characteristics, including intended career, neighborhood and school details, and parent occupations, even though that data is available. SFFA also excludes significant segments of the strongest part of the applicant pool (e.g., athletes and children of alumni, faculty or staff) and lumps six years of admissions together. With all information included, and when admissions are analyzed year-by-year — which most accurately reflects the yearly nature of building a class — there is no difference in admissions chances between Asian American and White applicants, and model quality is better.

10. Robust analysis finds no difference between Asian American and White applicants’ chances of admission. Using SFFA’s own measures of supposed racial bias in the ratings, Harvard’s expert re-ran his analysis removing alleged race factors and still found no difference in admissions chances for Asian American and White candidates.

We have no doubt that Asian Americans face implicit bias in the U.S. broadly. For example, we know from recent research that White students are more likely to rate Asian Americans as “less warm” than White students. But Asian Americans are also viewed by those students as “highly competent.” And those who view Asian Americans as highly competent are much more likely to exhibit negative stereotypes of Black and Latino students in terms of characteristics like work ethic (see research by Dr. Jerry Park and his colleagues). In other words, all non-white groups face implicit bias, and the most robust research in this area suggests that racial stereotypes paint Black and Latino students as less competent than Asian Americans and White students. Asian Americans are the only non-white group that is stereotyped as academically competent — which can benefit us in terms of grades and even test scores. The remedy proposed by the lawsuit against Harvard fails to address implicit bias against any group. Instead, it introduces more reliance on standardized tests and extracurriculars, which are both mostly a measure of parental income and education.

There is a deep history of anti-Asian American discrimination in our country, including the most prominent examples of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. Anti-Asian hostility led to lynching and mob violence against Asian Americans in the mid-1800s. We, too, have been deeply hurt by screams of “Go back to where you came from!” We, too, have been asked “Where are you really from?” and assured that our English is “really good.” We are deeply concerned that recycled stereotypes of Asian Americans as “forever foreigners” have led to false charges of spying directed at Chinese American scientists in recent times and likely affect whether voters will throw their support behind Asian American candidates. But the accusation that Asian Americans face a penalty in Harvard admissions based on “personality” or other criteria is not supported by data or the facts. As such, our energies and outrage are more productively directed at areas where we do see real evidence of racial discrimination against Asian Americans — at the ballot box, in corporate and public leadership, in popular culture representations.

Blum and his organization are using the myth of an Asian American penalty to scare Asian Americans into questioning whether race should be considered in college admissions to promote diversity and equality. Don’t fall for it.