As the Supreme Court gears up to review Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard later this year or early next, students, parents, and policy advocates eagerly await a final ruling on whether universities will continue to be able to discriminate against Asian American applicants. Originally filed in 2014 by a coalition of Asian Americans rejected by Harvard University, the lawsuit has the potential to completely shake up the current modus operandi of college admissions in America.
There are several legal principles at play within any college admission system. Harvard receives federal funding, meaning it must comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which bans any discrimination on the basis of race). Furthermore, the 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke banned the explicit use of racial quotas in the college admissions process. However, later cases clarified that a “whole person review” is legal: colleges are allowed to consider various aspects of a person’s background beyond just race, but they cannot simply admit a student because of their race. Finally, in 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in Fisher v. University of Texas that colleges could only make use of race-conscious admissions protocols if they could prove such protocols were the only way to meet diversity goals.
The Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit centers around alleged racial discrimination conducted by Harvard in the interest of maintaining a diverse student body. “Diversity,” of course, is a common buzzword in 2022 that few individuals dare question in public. After all, who would still be welcome in polite society after expressing opposition to “diversity”? And Harvard’s general defense centers around this same theme: of course diversity is a compelling interest for our community, scholarship, and student body. We want students of all backgrounds to be able to contribute to campus culture. Don’t you?
But the reality is much more nefarious. What Harvard calls “diversity” is, in practice, discrimination against Asian Americans for the sake of allowing other varieties of minorities in at inflated rates. Some of the statistics put forth by the plaintiff are startling: if Harvard admitted students based on academic merit alone, Asian Americans would make up almost 50 percent of the student body (as opposed to approximately 20 percent currently). Even more incredible? A black applicant to Harvard in the fourth-lowest academic decile has a higher chance of admission than an Asian American in the very top decile. What Harvard pitches as a commitment to diversity is truthfully a race-based benefit program for non-Asian and non-white students who can’t score high enough to compete on academic merit alone.
Harvard denies using any racial quota, and there are no best practices at Harvard strictly stating that Asians can’t exceed 20 percent of the student body (at least as far as we know). But Students for Fair Admissions argues that Harvard’s holistic review process is in effect a soft quota that provides cover for their racist admissions process. Harvard uses multiple data points to evaluate prospective students: grades, test scores, extracurriculars, alumni interviews, and legacy status. But they also use a vaguely defined “personality score,” which Asian Americans consistently score poorly on despite having the highest marks from alumni interviews and teacher recommendations (and where else would they demonstrate their “personality?”). Non-Asian minorities typically score very well, thus boosting their overall score and making up for any deficiency in merit measured academically or otherwise.
Harvard has no explanation for why this discrepancy exists. At best they can stereotype Asian Americans as excessive studiers who lack sufficient personality, with Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono, who evaluated the Harvard applications, saying that Asians are disproportionately likely to get Harvard’s “standard strong” moniker, which he claims means “good but not good enough.” Taken in conjunction with the statistical data provided by the plaintiff, it becomes very difficult for Harvard to deny the obvious: they simply don’t want too many Asians on campus and will do whatever it takes to keep them out.
While it remains to be seen how the Supreme Court will rule on the case, earlier context favors the student plaintiffs. Even Chief Justice John Roberts, a “swing vote” in the court, vociferously opposed affirmative action in earlier rulings, stating that “the only way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Whatever the decision, it will drastically affect the future of college admissions and the value of individual achievement versus collective group identity. In an America increasingly focused on the color of one’s skin as opposed to his merit, character, and individual contributions, SFFA v. Harvard is an open field where the Supreme Court can plant a flag rededicating the nation to the ideals of colorblindness and individual achievement that made us so great in the first place.