Is It Fair or Unfair: The Harvard Admission Process?

05/27/2015 02:14 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

Earlier this month a coalition of 64 organizations filed legal proceedings against Harvard University claiming that the Ivy sets quotas restricting numbers of Asian students admitted to the school. This litigation follows a November discrimination complaint (also against Harvard) by an (Asian) group called Students for Fair Admission.

As the father of a high school senior, my wonderful daughter will matriculate to an institution of higher learning this upcoming fall. Between high school and that ultimate acceptance letter lies a desolate chasm; a giant fissure of seemingly impossible proportion that must be navigated. SAT and ACT tests must be taken and retaken and sometimes again, consultants may be consulted, essays written and rewritten, all as college counselors loom as part of the scenery. Angst was more than pervasive. A more agreeable segment of this entire process is the on-site campus visits.

My Experience

The Harvard lawsuit maintains, "Many studies have indicated that Harvard University has been engaged in systemic and continuous discrimination against Asian-Americans during its very subjective 'Holistic' college admissions process." Statistics are presented demonstrating that Asians on average must achieve an SAT score 140 points higher than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanic students, and 450 points higher than black applicants to have equal chance of a Harvard acceptance letter.

My daughter and I traveled to over 15 schools both in the Eastern and Western parts of the country. Many were top ranked universities. I sat through lots and lots of presentations. The current Zeitgeist screams diversity. Admissions people were drooling all over themselves speaking of their love affair, their passion, enunciating its essentialness. Education played a tertiary role in most of the slideshows.

And indeed, the buzzword is "Holistic". It allows colleges to evaluate "the whole person" (another widely overused phrase) rather than be constrained by such trivialities as grades, test scores, or quality of the high school attended. This "Holistic" approach was emphasized as if this was the new organic method of filtering suitable applicants. Like organic food, it was healthy and contained no preservatives or trans-fats that polluted previous generations of our food supply. Bar charts, pie charts, scatter graphs measuring the success of this mission, were all force-fed to the audience of supplicants as the gesticulating presenter practiced tantric yoga breathing all while repeating "Holistic" as her mantra.

The message was clear: to in any way question the sublimity, no the divinity of redefining the word "Holistic", would be heretical to the new world order. Funny, seldom if ever, was race discussed as any part of these new admission models.

Supreme Court

Back in 1978 there was a vapid attempt to settle the race, quota issue. Allan Bakke, a white former Marine officer, and engineer filed suit against the U. of California for being denied entrance to medical school. Eminently more qualified than many others, the Court ordered U.C. Davis to enroll him......but the decision was at best murky. Racial quotas were deemed illegal, but invoking the 14th Amendment, affirmative action was fine; so nothing was settled.

We trundled along for 35 years until Fisher vs. U. of Texas gave the justices another opportunity to pontificate. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, claimed discrimination based on her race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 7-1 decision, the court agreed confirming the murky landscape remains as the court persists in sidestepping the real issues.
Some Interesting Statistics

The courts say race can be considered but reject numerical targets.....kind of a crosscurrent. Clearly, the rejiggering of "Holistic" attempts to provide cover for college's prestidigitations to ramp up African American and Hispanic student populations.

Harvard has a student body that is 21 percent Asian. Coincidentally or not, this ethnic group is 20% at Stanford, Princeton, Yale and 22 and 19 percent at Columbia and Penn respectively. Can you envision a basement smoke-filled room of ivy-league deans colluding to circumscribe Asian enrollments? I can, except it is politically incorrect, environmentally insensitive, and morally reprehensible to smoke. At Cal-Berkeley, my alma mater, Asian numbers rise sharply to just less than 41%. This elegant campus has been shielded from the new age definition of "Holistic".

Risking the ire of Jesse and Al, studies suggest, on average, Asians have higher IQ's than blacks do. They post loftier numbers than whites and Hispanics as well. Asian 2013 SAT scores registered 28.7% higher than African American high-schoolers and, not surprisingly, were tops among all ethnicities. These are just statistics, inconvenient as they may be.

And now I am touched with the knowledge that Asians are smarter than I am. This evidence is more deflating to some than Darwin's discovery that man is a close relative of apes; as we know, many still continue to be vehemently insulted by this proposition.

This whole mess poses a conundrum to the progressives. Wasn't this one of their protected species? The Asian population, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Vietnamese, et al., makes up less than 6 percent of the American population yet are 21 percent at Harvard. Based solely on merit, could that number be a lot higher. They run for more yards and catch more passes but are they unfairly denied the end zone? That little word "Holistic" forms an impregnable goal line stand. At the other end of the spectrum, at some schools, Asian students gain entrance on affirmative-action based programs. Go figure.


Should less qualified minorities be accepted into Harvard? Clearly, if you have years of patience and the inclination, the Supreme Court will force a university to admit the more qualified plaintiff. The High Court readily corrects case by case inequity but continues to promote amorphously, through 14th amendment protection, race as an admissions consideration. The justices also forced U. of Texas to admit the white Abigail Fisher based on her 14th Amendment equal protection rights. Until the courts more narrowly define what is and is not acceptable, admissions offices will always find the loopholes to increase acceptance numbers of less qualified minorities. "Holistic" is, but the latest legerdemain to achieve their ends.

My opinion is this; while some consideration can be given to less qualified applicants, overall too many much more qualified students are being inequitably prejudiced. There are many very bright African American and Hispanic students that have rightly earned their spot on the Harvard roster. My guess is that also the "Holistic" method put more than a few over the goal line. While diversity is a laudable goal, diversity for diversity's sake at the expense of the overall student body, ultimately is dilutive to the educational process.

The best that can be said is that current student selection procedures are desultory and capricious. Universities are interested not in the finest but the most diverse. One more time the nine men and women in the black robes will huddle. Maybe a more courageous decision will emerge.

I shared this article with a great friend who was a former director of admissions at a top tier university. His reply is published below. The perspective he offers from "sitting behind the desk" and an ability to see through the "two-way mirror" is diametric to my musings above. His response is well crafted and thoughtful. He chooses to remain anonymous.


As always, I love your work. Even when it's wrong!

There's nothing objectionable, but you are falling into a very common trap. Schools use the term holistic because they really do look at the whole person. If they just admitted based on scores, you'd have a really, really boring and homogenous class. It's not a contest to see who can get the highest SAT score or best grades. That's part of the puzzle, yes. But they also look to see where you are from, what challenges you have overcome, and how you have made the most of the opportunities you have had (or not had).

There's no secret cabal gathered in smoke-free basements. It's generally that the numbers naturally sort out that way. In undergrad especially, you have so many needs to fill. Think about a large university like Michigan, Penn, Harvard. You need to admit for academics (dozens and dozens of majors), sports, theater, music, science, technology, and so on. Then you have kids who have clawed their way up with no advantage, so why not give them a chance over, say, some kid from a well-off family who has had every advantage and has only performed average when compared to his/her peers (even if "average" is top grades, top scores, volunteering, and so forth).

Schools are in a position where they can "curate" a class now. The goal is to build an interesting, dynamic student body that will be greater than the simple sum of its parts.

But I understand that it's confusing from the outside. There is no algorithm, no "secret formula to get admitted, no "right answer" and that drives people mad. So they weave wild theories, when the truth (as is most often the case) is really simple and right in front of their noses. Universities are looking for students who have drive, who care about what they do, who are interesting, and who have taken risks. Do they always get it right? Hell no. Do they turn away tens of thousands of highly qualified students every year who will go on to be wildly successful in life? Absolutely. But when you have xxx seats to fill out of roughly xxxx applicants (as I did) and 90% of them are the sharpest tip of the spear, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't, so you make the best decisions you can at the time.

That lawsuit is ridiculous, and schools are very, very careful to not conduct admissions in a way that could leave them open to liability. And yet every year at xxxxx I would receive screaming phone calls threatening to sue the school and me personally for something. It's not easy or pleasant being told you are not the right fit for a school/job/love interest. Life is not fair. But the people behind the decisions are professionals, and they care deeply for what they do. They love the class they admit, and they mourn the candidates they must reject. The worst days for me were decision release days, because while I rejoiced in those we admitted, because they were truly exceptional, I felt an extreme sense of loss and sadness for the many, many applicants I had gotten to know and had to deny, even though I knew they were just phenomenal.

There's no black and white here, my friend.