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Judge upholds Harvard's race conscious admissions process

Harvard University campus. Photo: Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images
Harvard University campus. Photo: Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images

A federal judge on Tuesday ruled in favor of Harvard’s race conscious admissions process, finding that the university did not discriminate against Asian American applicants.

Why it matters: The long-awaited decision reaffirms an admissions process that considers race and how diversity should influence the makeup of an incoming class. The ruling, which could be appealed, may impact recruitment programs and financial aid.

Background: Students for Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit in 2014, arguing that Harvard's admissions office holds Asian Americans to a higher standard and uses a subjective "personal rating" to limit their admission to the elite Ivy League school.

  • Lawyers for Harvard argued that Asian American applicants do not get penalized, but that black and Latin American students do sometimes get a “tip” when admissions officers are awarding an overall score for applicants.
  • The ruling said that the anti-affirmative action challenger did not present "a single admissions file that reflected discriminatory animus." The school’s admissions process is sound with Supreme Court precedents and does not violate federal civil rights law, the judge found.
"Removing considerations of race and ethnicity from Harvard’s admissions process entirely would deprive applicants, including Asian American applicants, of their right to advocate the value of their unique background, heritage, and perspective."
— U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs

The big picture: When Harvard was forced to reveal its secret method during trial, it revealed that it gave Asian American applicants lower ratings on average than applicants of other races in categories that included "positive personality" and being "widely respected," per an analysis of more than 160,000 student records.

  • Americans have long shown a dislike for considering race and ethnicity in the college admissions process. A survey from the Pew Research Center in February found that 73% of Americans believe it should not be a factor.

Between the lines: The admissions process is just as much about admitting Ivy League legacies, children of big donors and athletes as pitting Asian Americans up against Latino and black applicants.

What they're saying: House Education and Labor chairman and Harvard grad Bobby Scott (D-Va) supported the district court's decision, saying in a statement that it it "affirms the constitutionality of admissions policies that recognize that there is a compelling interest in advancing a diverse student body."