harvard admissions building Glen Cooper/Getty Images

Choosing the Best Students

In sharply unequal societies, elite universities that receive government funds can properly be expected to play a role in fostering social mobility. But what does that obligation imply when these universities decide which applicants to admit?

PRINCETON – In different countries and for different reasons, university admissions policies are under attack. In a Boston courtroom on October 15, a judge will begin hearing a lawsuit claiming that Harvard’s admission process discriminates against Asian-Americans. In the United Kingdom, Member of Parliament David Lammy described Oxford and Cambridge as “fiefdoms of entrenched privilege” because of the many students they admit from private schools. In Japan, Tokyo Medical University has apologized for manipulating female applicants’ entrance exam scores in order to cap the proportion of women admitted at 30%.

Let’s look at each of these controversies in turn. It has long been apparent that the proportion of Asian-Americans admitted to America’s top private universities is significantly lower than that admitted by top public universities, where consideration of race is prohibited. In 2013, for example, Asian-American enrollment was 14-18% at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Cornell, and Columbia. At the two leading campuses of the University of California, Los Angeles and Berkeley, the range was 32-35%. Nor can the discrepancy be fully explained by California’s demographics, because at Stanford, California’s top private university, the Asian-American enrolment is, at 23%, still much lower than at California’s leading state institutions. (By contrast, of those enrolled at the private California Institute of Technology, 43% were Asian-American.)

Although Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Cornell and Columbia are private universities, each receives millions of dollars in public funds, which brings with it requirements that prohibit “unlawful” racial discrimination. Students for Fair Admissions, the organization suing Harvard, has submitted to the court a document showing that a review from Harvard’s own Office of Institutional Research found that in 2013 Asian-Americans were less likely to be admitted than whites who performed comparably well on all measures except a subjective “personal” rating. If admission had been based solely on academic performance, Harvard’s intake would have been 43% Asian-American. Instead, it was 19%.

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