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I understand those feelings. As a Korean American woman, I know what it’s like to feel lumped together, dismissed, and seen as interchangeable. But as a researcher, I am also attuned to the powerful role of cognitive bias — the quick, unconscious ways our brains can make us jump to conclusions without deeply weighing the evidence. Many Asian Americans already felt that the deck was stacked against them prior to the Harvard case. So when during oral arguments before the Supreme Court, the SFFA attorney Cameron Norris said that “Asians should be getting into Harvard more than whites, but they don’t because Harvard gives them significantly lower personal ratings,” it reinforced the suspicions among many Asian Americans that despite all of their accomplishments, they will always be stereotyped and typecast.
Norris’s allegations were alarming, but are they the whole story? First, it is critical to understand that the personal rating is more than just how nice Harvard thinks applicants are. According to Harvard, the personal rating is “based on all parts of the application, including essays, letters of recommendation, and interview reports.” It considers potential contributions to the campus community and “to society as a whole after graduation.” The personal rating probably should have been called “the other stuff” rating, in that it was meant to capture features of the student not captured through the academic, extracurricular, and athletic ratings.
Norris’s claim that “Harvard ranks Asians less likable, confident, and kind” is based more on speculation than data. Yes, it reflects stereotypes that many Asian Americans experience, but the question at hand is not whether society thinks that Asians are less likeable (which, sadly, is true), but whether Harvard specifically and systematically rated them as such.
Let’s sift through the facts. Yes, Harvard had a scale related to certain traits like concern for others, confidence, and integrity. Yet, critically, that scale does not make up the entire personal rating — it is one of numerous pieces of information used to shape the personal rating. The personal rating is not a personality score. Also overlooked is the fact that Harvard never provided any data for how students actually rated on the trait scale of characteristics like kindness. Contrary to Norris’s claims, we have no way of knowing for sure whether Harvard ranked Asian American students as disproportionately less likeable or confident.
There are perfectly logical explanations for why the personal rating for Asian Americans was slightly lower.
Second, there are perfectly logical explanations for why the personal rating for Asian Americans was slightly lower. While we do not have data on the trait scale, Harvard provided data on ratings assigned to letters of recommendation. Asian Americans received lower ratings on letters from counselors and teachers than white students, both overall and when students are broken out by level of academic performance. As noted, these letters influence the personal rating.
Why would Asian Americans, who had the highest academic ratings, have lower rankings on their letters of recommendation from counselors and teachers? Possibly because Asian Americans are more likely to attend public high schools, and public-school counselors and teachers are overloaded. Sooji Kim, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, and I analyzed a national sample of students who said that their first-choice college was Harvard or a similarly hyper-selective institution. Of these students, only 56 percent of white applicants attended public school, while almost 75 percent of Asian Americans with similar aspirations attended public school.
Private schools come with intensive support for college counseling, which translates into highly personalized and individualized letters of recommendation. In contrast, the average student-to-counselor ratio for public schools in 2017 was 663 to 1 in California, 499 to 1 in Washington State, and an astounding 741 to 1 in Michigan. How can a counselor juggling hundreds of students be expected to write lengthy, individualized letters detailing what makes every one of them a shining star?
In a recent study, Tara Nicola, a Harvard doctoral student, and collaborators found that counselors at large, public high schools were more likely to recycle and reuse text from letters of recommendation submitted to colleges. That could help explain why letters for white students were better than those submitted for Asian Americans. And while that is unfair, since most students have little control over where they attend school, it is a distinctly different issue than SFFA’s claim of Harvard intentionally discriminating against Asian Americans.
We do not have data on how Harvard evaluated essays, which also factor into the personal rating, but I would not be surprised if on the whole, essays written by Asian Americans were a little weaker than those written by white students. Among other factors, white applicants are probably more likely to receive private college coaching, which often includes support for writing a high-quality essay.
During the trial, Justice Samuel Alito asked Harvard’s counsel how the personal rating for Asian Americans could be lower when alumni interviewers rated them just as well as students from other groups. Actually, whites outscored Asian Americans on alumni ratings when you break students out by academic ranking, and they outscored Asian Americans overall on the alumni personal rating.
The available data tell us that Asian Americans got into Harvard less not because they were less kind or confident, but because they were less likely to be legacies or recruited athletes. Asian American admit rates are actually slightly higher than admit rates for white students when you compare only students who are not legacies, athletes, on a special Dean’s List, or children of faculty and staff. Again, these dynamics may be unfair, but they are very different from the claim of intentional discrimination made by SFFA.
Asian Americans got into Harvard less not because they were less kind or confident, but because they were less likely to be legacies or recruited athletes.
It can be easy for Asian Americans to think that the admissions deck is stacked against them, when in reality, over 800,000 more students are graduating from high school now than they were when I applied to college in the late 1990s. It’s gotten harder for everyone to get into the most selective colleges.
The question remains whether the Supreme Court will allow colleges to keep race-conscious admissions as a tool to recognize the accomplishments of students of all races and backgrounds. Allowing the policies is crucial. Race-conscious admissions remain critical to creating college environments where students can learn from each other in community, preparing them to contribute to a complex, diverse society. That applies to Asian Americans as much as anyone else.
Actress Sandra Oh, who knows a things or two about how #RepresentationMatters, said in a recent interview : “I have real strong thoughts on affirmative action, because I would not have gained the experience that I gained without ‘multiculturalism’... it’s making room for other people to get a shot.” As she understands, making room for others does not mean leaving one’s own community behind — but it will mean being willing to face some challenging truths. Not every Asian American, even the ones with the perfect test scores and spectacular accomplishments, is going to get into Harvard, although quite a few of them will. We owe it to ourselves to dig deeper and examine whether SFFA’s claims are actually grounded in evidence and data.