By most standards, Austin Jia holds an enviable position. A rising sophomore at Duke, Mr. Jia attends one of the top universities in the country, setting him up for success.
But with his high G.P.A., nearly perfect SAT score and activities — debate team, tennis captain and state orchestra — Mr. Jia believes he should have had a fair shot at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. Those Ivy League colleges rejected him after he applied in the fall of 2015.
It was particularly disturbing, Mr. Jia said, when classmates with lower scores than his — but who were not Asian-American, like him — were admitted to those Ivy League institutions.
“My gut reaction was that I was super disillusioned by how the whole system was set up,” Mr. Jia, 19, said.
Students like Mr. Jia are now the subject of a lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian-Americans in admissions by imposing a penalty for their high achievement and giving preferences to other racial minorities.
The case, which is clearly aimed for the Supreme Court, puts Asian-Americans front and center in the latest stage of the affirmative action debate. The issue is whether there has been discrimination against Asian-Americans in the name of creating a diverse student body. The Justice Department, which has signaled that it is looking to investigate “intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions,” may well focus on Harvard.
The Harvard case asserts that the university’s admissions process amounts to an illegal quota system, in which roughly the same percentage of African-Americans, Hispanics, whites and Asian-Americans have been admitted year after year, despite fluctuations in application rates and qualifications.
“It falls afoul of our most basic civil rights principles, and those principles are that your race and your ethnicity should not be something to be used to harm you in life nor help you in life,” said Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, the organization that is suing Harvard.
His group, a conservative-leaning nonprofit based in Virginia, has filed similar suits against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin, asserting that white students are at a disadvantage at those colleges because of their admissions policies.
The federal government potentially has the ability to influence university admissions policies by withholding federal funds under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids racial discrimination in programs that receive federal money.
In many ways, the system the lawsuit is attacking is one Harvard points to with pride. The university has a long and pioneering history of support for affirmative action, going back at least to when Derek Bok, appointed president of Harvard in 1971, embraced policies that became a national model.
The university has extended that ethos to many low-income students, allowing them to attend free. Harvard has argued in a Supreme Court brief that while it sets no quotas for “blacks, or of musicians, football players, physicists or Californians,” if it wants to achieve true diversity, it must pay some attention to the numbers. The university has also said that abandoning race-conscious admissions would diminish the “excellence” of a Harvard education.
Melodie Jackson, a spokeswoman for Harvard, said that the university’s admissions policy was fair; that it looked at each applicant “as a whole person,” consistent with standards established by the Supreme Court; and that it promoted “the ability to work with people from different backgrounds, life experiences and perspectives.”
Harvard’s class of 2021 is 14.6 percent African-American, 22.2 percent Asian-American, 11.6 percent Hispanic and 2.5 percent Native American or Pacific Islander, according to data on the university’s website.
For the Harvard case, initially filed in 2014, Mr. Blum said, the federal court in Boston has allowed the plaintiffs to demand records from four highly competitive high schools with large numbers of Asian-American students: Stuyvesant High School in New York; Monta Vista High School in the Silicon Valley city of Cupertino; Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va.; and the Boston Latin School.
The goal is to look at whether students with comparable qualifications have different odds of admission that could be correlated with race and how stereotypes influence the process. A Princeton study found that students who identify as Asian need to score 140 points higher on the SAT than whites to have the same chance of admission to private colleges, a difference some have called “the Asian tax.”
The lawsuit also cites Harvard’s Asian-American enrollment at 18 percent in 2013, and notes very similar numbers ranging from 14 to 18 percent at other Ivy League colleges, like Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton and Yale.
In contrast, it says, in the same year, Asian-Americans made up 34.8 percent of the student body at the University of California, Los Angeles, 32.4 percent at Berkeley and 42.5 percent at Caltech. It attributes the higher numbers in the state university system to the fact that California banned racial preferences by popular referendum in 1996, though California also has a large number of Asian-Americans.
The data, experts say, suggests that if Harvard were forbidden to use race as a factor in admissions, the Asian-American admissions rate would rise, and the percentage of white, black and Hispanic students would fall.
Harvard argued that Mr. Blum’s group lacked standing to sue, but the court rejected the motion in June, based on signed declarations from several Asian-American applicants to Harvard who were rejected and who are members of the organization.
A year ago, the Supreme Court upheld a University of Texas admissions plan that allows race and ethnicity to be considered as one of many factors in admission. But some legal experts noted that Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in his dissent, said the Texas plan discriminated against Asian-Americans, and they saw that as a future theme to be pursued by opponents of affirmative action.
Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, echoed that view on Wednesday.
“The idea of discriminating against Asians in order to make room for other minorities doesn’t seem right as a matter of principle,” Mr. Dershowitz said.
Mr. Dershowitz said that investigating discrimination against whites, however, raised a different set of questions.
“Generically, whites have not been the subject of historic discrimination,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “When you start getting into subgroups of whites, then the question becomes a more subtle one.”
The Harvard lawsuit likens attitudes toward Asian-Americans to attitudes toward Jews at Harvard, beginning around 1920, when Jews were a high-achieving minority. In 1918, Jews reached 20 percent of the Harvard freshman class, and the university soon proposed a quota to lower the number of Jewish students.
That history, Mr. Dershowitz said, made affirmative action opponents wary of admissions policies that resulted in a college population reflecting a group’s share of the general population.
Some Asian-American students believe Harvard’s system has enriched their educational experience. Emily Choi, who will be a junior with a history and literature concentration at Harvard this fall, said the university had been her dream school since she visited in seventh grade.
She graduated from Ardsley High School in Westchester County, N.Y., as editor of the newspaper, president of the Latin Club and vice president of the student council with a 4.0 G.P.A. and 35 out of 36 on the ACT.
She was not aware of concerns about discrimination against Asian-Americans until she arrived on campus and heard about the lawsuit, she said, and she was glad of the diversity she found at Harvard.
“I firmly believe in affirmative action,” Ms. Choi said. “The diversity at Harvard has been key to my learning, and I think that if there weren’t so many people of different backgrounds, I wouldn’t be forced to think about things in new ways.”
Mr. Jia, who is not a party to the lawsuit against Harvard, graduated in 2016 from Millburn High School in New Jersey.
He applied to 14 colleges, including Duke, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Rutgers, New York University, Georgetown and the University of Pennsylvania. His SAT score was 2340 out of 2400, his G.P.A. was 4.42 and he took 11 Advanced Placement courses.
In addition to playing tennis, participating in the debate team and playing violin in the state orchestra, he did advocacy for an Asian-American student group.
“All I know is that my student profile and all the extracurriculars I was involved in, and the grades I achieved were, I think, sufficient to get into a couple of the schools I applied to,” he said.
The experience has left Mr. Jia questioning the admissions process. “I felt that the whole concept of meritocracy — which America likes to say it exercises all the time — I felt that principle was defeated a little in my mind,” he said.
But, he added, he is coming to terms with the results. “I didn’t want to blame everything on one reason.”
Dana Goldstein and Alain Delaquérière contributed reporting.
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