Affirmative Action

Harvard's Recruitment Efforts Prioritized White Students Over High-Achieving Asians

What worked to limit Jewish enrollment 100 years ago has also worked to limit Asian enrollment.


Daderot / Public Domain

There are 20 states—mostly in the south and the Great Plains region—considered "sparse country" by Harvard University's admissions department. "Sparse country" sends fewer students to Harvard, and thus the university makes a special effort to recruit from these states.

Recruiters send letters of encouragement to "sparse country" high school students who score well on the PSAT, an SAT practice test. Black, Hispanic, and Native American students needed to score an 1100 out of 1600 to attract Harvard's attention. White students received letters if they achieved a 1310. But Asian males did not earn letters unless they scored 1380.

Think about what this means: Everyone from underrepresented states who scored at least a 1310—whites, Hispanics, blacks, Native Americans—got a letter from Harvard. Everyone, except Asians. It looks like Harvard admissions officials didn't just prioritize other racial minority groups over Asians—they also wanted to stop the campus from becoming more Asian and less white.

This is among the revelations that have come to light during the last two weeks of the Harvard trial. Students for Fair Admissions has sued Harvard on behalf of Asian-American applicants who say they were discriminated against because of race. (The lawsuit does not impugn affirmative action itself, though the outcome is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, where the broader question could be revisited.)

The New Yorker's Jeannie Suk Gerson writes that the "sparse country" letters to non-Asian students are reminiscent of Harvard's efforts in the early 20th century to cap the number of Jewish students. A hundred years ago, officials pioneered a holistic admissions process that considered geography, personality, and background in addition to grades. As a result, the proportion of Jewish students shrunk from about a quarter to just 10 percent by 1930. According to Suk, the "sparse country" letters

highlighted a key question of the trial: whether the Harvard admissions process treats white racial identity as an asset, relative to Asian identity (or treats Asian identity as a drawback, relative to white identity). By pointing to the higher numerical cutoff for Asians as a group at the recruitment stage, before any holistic review of individual applicants could have occurred, the plaintiff apparently was suggesting that race is not used as one factor among many but, rather, as the determinative factor, in Harvard's alleged effort to shape its class to be more white and less Asian.

The twentieth-century history of reaching out to regions where Jews were sparse cast something of a pall over the revelation of explicit differential treatment of Asian and white students in Sparse Country.

I tend to think Harvard's admissions officers are smart people who know exactly what they want (a campus with fewer Asian students) and how to get it without resorting to an explicit policy of only X many Asians need apply. They tinkered with their outreach priorities, considered subjective criteria where Asians could be punished without it attracting much scrutiny, and set different academic expectations for the highest-achieving group. What worked to limit Jewish enrollment 100 years ago has also worked to limit Asian enrollment. This scheme is blatantly racist by any reasonable understanding of the term, and should attract moral condemnation, whether or not it was legal.