Below is an excerpt from an op-ed Bloomberg asked me to write on this topic.
What Harvard Owes Its Top Asian-American Applicants: Stephen Hsu
It’s a common belief among Asian- American families that their children are held to higher academic standards than college applicants from other ethnic groups. Such practices were openly acknowledged after investigations at universities like Berkeley and Stanford in the 1980s and 1990s.
Have they been corrected?
The U.S. Education Department is investigating complaints that Harvard University and Princeton University discriminated against Asian-Americans in undergraduate admissions.
Statistics seem to support the claim of bias across most of elite higher education. For example, in comprehensive data compiled as part of Duke University’s Campus Life and Learning project (as reported in a recent analysis by Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono and collaborators), Asian-Americans who enrolled at the school in 2001 averaged 1457 out of 1600 on the math and reading part of the SAT, compared with 1416 for whites, 1347 for Hispanics and 1275 for blacks.
There is every reason to believe that a similar pattern holds at nearly all elite universities in the U.S., with notable exceptions such as the California Institute of Technology. In fact, Duke may be one of the mildest offenders when it comes to Asian-American admissions: With the goal of increasing its overall student quality, Duke has reportedly been more friendly recently to Asian-American applicants than traditional powers such as Harvard and Princeton.
Schools like Harvard and Princeton brag that each year they reject numerous applicants such as Jian Li (who filed a complaint against Princeton) who score a perfect 2400 on the SAT. How would we feel if it were revealed that almost all of these rejected top scorers, year after year, were Asian- Americans? I challenge Harvard and Princeton to refute this possibility.
To be fair, most elite universities practice what is known as holistic admissions: Each candidate is evaluated on a variety of measures, including athletic and leadership activities in addition to academic performance. It is possible that the gap in academic average between Asian-American and white admitted students is compensated by gaps in the opposite direction on these other variables. Looking again at internal evaluations by Duke’s admissions office, we find Asian-Americans had higher averages than whites in the following categories: achievement, curriculum (each about one-third of a standard deviation) and letters of recommendation, while trailing very slightly (less than one-tenth of a standard deviation) in personal qualities.
Lacking data on factors such as legacy and recruited athlete status, we can’t make a complete determination of the fairness of the process, and in fact the appropriate weight of the various factors in a holistic admissions process will be subject to vigorous debate. ...