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For college admissions: A holistic review, or systematic discrimination?

Lawsuit against Harvard’s use of race, applicants’ personality renews concerns about affirmative action in the admissions process
University Business, August 2018
  • This infographic from Harvard shows its minority enrollment breakdown for the Class of 2021.
  • Harvard officials say they consider race in accordance with federal law, along with factors such as personality and extracurriculars. (gettyimages.com: janniswerner)

The fairness of race in admissions is again under question. A lawsuit brought against Harvard University by the nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions contends the institution systematically discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

This is compounded by Harvard’s 2013 internal investigation that found the Asian-American representation in its student population would increase from its current 19 percent to 43 percent if academic achievements were the only consideration during the admissions process.

Harvard disputes its admissions office is doing anything illegal, and officials say they consider race in accordance with federal law, along with factors such as personality and extracurriculars.

The public’s call for more transparency in all segments of higher education administration has brought particular scrutiny to the admissions process.


MORE NEWS: Previous UB coverage of race as a factor in holistic admissions


Only the most selective colleges consider personality traits in their admissions process, and they do so in a variety of ways, says Michael Bastedo, director at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan’s School of Education.

“The most competitive schools want to get to know the whole person, to understand noncognitive traits of a person that could predict their success, such as leadership, grit and persistence.”

To help demystify decisions, universities can explain their holistic review policy on their websites and during meetings with applicants and parents. This will increase understanding of what each campus looks for in potential students.

Essentially, the admissions office must uphold and preserve the university’s intended campus culture when considering potential students.

“[Schools’] inquiry centers on what kinds of contributions a student will bring to generate meaningful learning experiences for all students,” says Art Coleman, managing partner with the Education Counsel, an education consulting firm. “This is based on the diversity of the class that [a university] assembles.”

He suggests publicizing statistics about past entering classes as another way to demonstrate what represents success at a particular university.

Sea change on the horizon?

The lawsuit against Harvard comes just as the Department of Education rescinded Obama-era guidance around the use of race in college admissions. The department called the 2011 recommendations outdated, but did not immediately release new guidelines.

Critics cite it as a clear indication that the government will veer toward race-neutral admissions. In a recent statement, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos maintained that current affirmative action laws are constitutional, but that the issue is best navigated by the court system and not the government.

Considering the resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy and President Donald Trump’s new Supreme Court appointment, Brett Kavanaugh, some in higher ed fear the loss of the swing vote on affirmative action. Kavanaugh, an appellate-court judge, acted as a White House aide during the presidency of George W. Bush.

However, the effects of 40 years of policy created around the notion that diversity benefits all students can now be seen in business, military and other sectors, and the fundamentals are unlikely to change.

“In the future,” says Coleman, “the question on issues of affirmative action that make it to the Supreme Court should not be ‘whether’ but ‘how,’ with a focus on the evidence that institutions offer in support of their mission-aligned, educational decisions.”