When the admissions offices of the Ivy League become the arbiters of success, the gatekeepers of a prosperous worthwhile future, the almighty judges who evaluate whether one has wasted the first 18 years of life, and those decisions are in the hands of mere morals, who have flaws, who are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, the news piece yesterday from Bloomberg announcing that the Department of Education is investigating complaints that Harvard and Princeton discriminate against Asian-Americans in the admissions process is not a surprise.
This development does not seem particularly new as these charges have been leveled before at Ivy League schools primarily based on test scores. Various articles have documented how Asian-Americans appear to need higher test scores than other groups to get in. However, in one of these cases, a student with a perfect SAT score was denied, so other aspects within the holistic process were involved. One of the interesting parallels here that some analysts draw is to the debate about admitting Jewish students early in the Twentieth Century and the fear of what would happen if too many Jewish students were admitted. In fact, Harvard at one point eliminated its entrance exam and went to a system emphasizing geographic diversity, a switch that cut back on the number of Jewish students admitted.
In today’s cases, I doubt that the Department of Education will be able to penetrate the wall set up by holistic review whereby each candidate is looked at based on a number of factors and decisions are made regarding the best possible makeup of the incoming class. It is when some numerical point system (such as the one ruled illegal at University of Michigan) is in play, or there is some transparent mathematical jujitsu being done to compensate for test score discrepancies that schools run into trouble.