In a decision that highlights the growing number of stakeholders in ongoing debates about affirmative action in college admissions, the U.S. Department of Education has rejected Asian American students’ claims that Princeton University illegally discriminated against them in the application process. Inside Higher Education reports on the decision, which Princeton announced yesterday:
Rejected Asian applicants and some Asian-American groups have had high hopes that the investigation would find bias. They have pointed to the very high academic qualifications of Asian-American applicants who are rejected, even as some applicants from other backgrounds and seemingly lesser credentials have been admitted.
Those who complained to OCR, for example, pointed to research by two Princeton scholars, published in Social Science Quarterly, that looked at admissions decisions at elite colleges. The scholars found that without affirmative action, the acceptance rate for African-American candidates would be likely to fall by nearly two-thirds, from 33.7 percent to 12.2 percent, while the acceptance rate for Hispanic applicants probably would be cut in half, from 26.8 percent to 12.9 percent.
The investigators from the Department’s Office of Civil Rights did not address these or any other studies in the 20-page decision, instead focusing narrowly on whether Asians were subject to an explicit quota, and whether students were “sorted, read, or processed according to the race of the applicant.” Based on OCR’s reasoning, it appears that a university wouldn’t be punished for taking race into account so long as it can show that it “engaged in a holistic review process that considered each applicant as an individual.” In other words, universities do not run afoul of Supreme Court precedent if they penalize Asians in their admissions processes, so long as they do so in the context of a “holistic process” that takes many factors into account, rather than segregating all Asian applicants into their own pile and disadvantaging them automatically.
The fact that existing affirmative action law is such a mess might be one of the reasons that the Supreme Court announced in June that it would consider the issue again in the coming term. The case before the Court—Fisher vs. University of Texas—involves a white plaintiff. But if the justices decide to strike down or curtail affirmative action, it is probably Asian students like the plaintiffs in the Princeton case who would benefit the most. This means that affirmative action debates are likely to get even more politically tangled, since they will pit various Democratic-leaning constituencies against one another. It’s unclear how long this system can last.