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Race and Admissions

Racial preference in admissions is a delicate subject and it has been in the news recently.

On Feb. 17 The NY Times “The Choice” blog ran this headline, “Discrimination Investigations End at Princeton and Harvard”. The Education Department said that the original complaints were received last August, and that both had recently been withdrawn. The Office for Civil Rights closed its case against Harvard on Feb. 15, and removed the complaint accusations from an existing compliance review at Princeton.” The article goes on to explain that in each case, an Asian-American student complained that he or she had been rejected because of race.

Harvard denied discrimination and cited the fact that they only admitted 6.3% of the applicants for the incoming class as the most likely reason the student was not admitted.

Today I read in The Chronicle of Higher Education that the United States Supreme Court was going to take up the case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, regarding race-conscious admissions.

Admission to the Ivy League and many other highly sought after colleges and universities, like the flagship University of Texas at Austin, is extremely selective — we all understand that. However, the devil does seem to be in the details.  Any group that is perceived to have an advantage causes others to feel like they have been unfairly kept out. This sentiment holds true for any seemingly advantaged group– recruited athletes, underrepresented minorities, legacy students, etc.

Colleges in the US don’t use a straight up meritocracy formula– where it would be a certain criteria such as GPA or test scores that determined eligibility. In addition to those factors they also take into account a lot of intangible qualities and together they are evaluated and a decision is made.  I always tell my students that if the college doesn’t accept you it doesn’t automatically mean you weren’t qualified or couldn’t have done the work and been successful. Sometimes there is no good reason a student was denied.  Colleges also very rarely will tell a student why he was not admitted. The usual answer is “this was a very completive year and we had X number of applications”. Not being forthcoming about the process also tends to fan the flames and make people feel that something unfair must be happening behind the closed door of admissions.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out and if major changes in the law are coming.

Janet Rosier