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Human Development

Harvard Admissions Case

Harvard Admissions Case

Tag: GS -2||Governance & Social Justice||Human Development||Education

What is the issue?

  • In 2014, a group called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) alleged that Harvard University discriminates against Asian-American applicants in the undergraduate admissions process.
  • This case contains elements that strongly resonate with the Indian debate on reservations.

Lawsuit claim

  • The lawsuit claimed that Asian-Americans were held to higher standards compared to students from other races
  • Illegal quota system
    • It claimed that the Harvard was using an illegal quota system that informally capped the number of Asian-Americans, but gave preferential access to African-American or Latino students.
  • Preferential access
    • This claim was made despite the fact that Asian-Americans are roughly 6% of the U.S. population, but was 23% of the entering batch in 2018.
    • In the same year, there were only about 15% African-Americans and 12% Latino students entering Harvard.
    • This difference in share makes it prima facie difficult to understand their grievance.

Race as a factor to Harvard

  • Diversity student Body: Harvard acknowledged that they did use race as one factor among many, mainly to ensure a diverse student body.
  • Consistent with law: They claimed that their use of race was consistent with law.
  • Federal District Court: In October 2019, the Federal District court ruled in favour of Harvard.
  • Supreme court
    • If the case goes to the Supreme Court (SC), dominated by conservative judges, there is a chance this ruling might be reversed.
    • If the SC strikes down the use of race as a criterion for admissions, it would mean an end to affirmative action.
    • Affirmative action: It is the practice of favouring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously. This term is used in the context of the allocation of resources or employment.
    • This is a complicated case not just for the future of AA in the U.S., but because it has the potential to impact anti-AA sentiment everywhere.

What are the arguments?

  • In favour of Harvard 
    • Economist David Card argued by a detailed examination of the statistical evidence.
    • He investigated SFFA’s argument that Harvard was able to achieve its diversity targets through the use of a number of race-neutral admission practices.
    • Card successfully demolishes the claims of the SFFA in an impressively detailed study.
    • Card shows that academic achievement is only one of the requirements for determining excellence.
  • In favour of SFFA 
    • Peter Arcidiacono, an economist, concluded by focusing solely on academic achievement.
    • It shows that African-American and Latino students with lower academic scores have been admitted to higher scores at the expense of Asian-Americans.
    • Card shows that the empirical analysis of Dr. Arcidiacono did not account for the overall context of the request of each candidate.
    • The performance of the high school, socio-economic conditions, services and opportunities available to the student may be included in this sense.
  • Harvard’s stance
    • Harvard’s candidate pool is made up of candidates with excellent academic credentials and a very competitive process.
    • A successful candidate cannot be identified solely on the basis of test scores to choose from this pool; non-academic factors must be considered.
    • Harvard claims that they judge excellence in a variety of forms, and include students with diverse experiences, backgrounds, skills, etc.,
    • This multi-dimensionality is possible when the student body is racially diverse.
  • Even if SFFA wins
    • If it wins this case in the SC, it might be the final nail in the coffin of AA.
    • Even if AA for minorities and women is abolished, the tacit quota for the whites would stay intact in the form of legacy admissions.
    • Universities justify this activity by arguing that it fosters a stable and inclusive campus and alumni culture.
    • This case, however, made it clear that legacy biases benefit wealthy white students.

What is the Indian parallel?

  • Reservation Policy
    • In India, the fact that entry-level cut-offs are lower for students in the reserved group is seen as proof that the reservation system is ‘ anti-merit. ‘
    • This leads to its corollary, i.e., it is appropriate to eliminate reservations in order to improve merit.
    • Our universities should adopt a more holistic set of criteriafor admissions.
    • This would reduce the excessive and unhealthy obsession with board examination scores and will reorient the admission priorities. It would also enable universities to account for various sources of disadvantage due to poor socio-economic circumstances.
    • But the admissions based on marks, with allowances made for socio-economic circumstances, need not mean an automatic death of “merit”.
    • The challenges in increasing access to higher education to students from deprived backgrounds are enormous.
    • But these challenges are inherent in any strategy that expands access to higher education and have to be dealt with.

What is the conclusion?

  • SFFA sounds disconcertingly similar to the Indian “Youth for Equality”.
  • Affirmative Action or reservations in India is essentially a policy of compensatory discrimination.
  • This discriminates in favour of groups that are traditionally discriminated against. E.g.: African-Americans and Latinos in the U.S.; Dalits and Adivasis in India.
  • Because of historical and contemporary discrimination, these groups would typically be under-represented in formal institutions.
  • In order to compensate for that, preferential policies are needed.
  • Those who are against AA argue that the preferential policies are unfair and foster inequality because they use criteria other than “merit” for admissions (race in the U.S.; caste and tribal status in India).
  • However, these critics must also argue against the opaque methods of entry that completely divorce it from merit, which is not the case now.
  • These methods are legacy admissions (U.S.) or discretionary management quotas or donation-based admissions (India).
    • Legacy admissions: Preferential admissions for students whose parents graduated from that educational institution.

Mains model question

  • Do you support the removal of caste-based reservation and its replacement with income-based reservation? In the light of question on ability of reservation system to address the twin issues of poverty and development, critically comment.