One of the most striking revelations pertains to Harvard’s consideration of applicants’ soft skills—things like “likability,” “helpfulness,” “integrity,” and “courage”—in determining their acceptance. Despite boasting higher test scores, better grades, and stronger extracurricular resumes than applicants of any other racial group, Asian American applicants consistently received lower rankings on those personality traits, according to a statistical analysis conducted on behalf of SFFA of more than 160,000 student records. This emphasis on personality, the analysis concludes, significantly undermined otherwise-qualified Asian Americans’ chances of getting in.
The news media have largely fixated on whether the evidence contained in the filing is the “smoking gun” needed in the longstanding crusade to crack down on admissions practices at the country’s premier institution of higher learning, practices that until now the school hadn’t disclosed to the public. Whether the evidence is incriminating isn’t clear, but it does reveal how tricky it is to assign value to personality traits in college admissions. In offering a glimpse into how the emphasis on those traits might favor some races over others, the filing points to a puzzle whose solution could be integral to the quest to get affirmative action right: Is it possible to define a characteristic as intangible and subjective as good personality in a way that protects students against people’s deep-seated, and often subconscious, biases?
“However you measure these things—whatever you do [in the admissions process]—is going to privilege one group and disadvantage another group,” said Natasha Warikoo, an associate professor of education at Harvard who wrote the book The Diversity Bargain, which explores the role of race at elite universities. “There’s no such thing as a perfect admissions system that leads to ‘a meritocracy.’” Warikoo wasn’t involved in this lawsuit.
SFFA’s filing includes a report by Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke University economist, that delves into the process by which Harvard rates applicants in five main categories: academic, extracurricular, athletic, personal, and overall. Arcidiacono shows that, after narrowing down applicants to those with the strongest objective academic qualifications, Asian Americans were far more likely than blacks or Hispanics to receive a low personality score from admissions officers. The analysis juxtaposes the Asian Americans’ personality scores from admissions officers with the relatively high personality ratings given by alumni interviewers, as well as with the relatively positive feedback provided to Harvard by applicants’ teachers and counselors, for those same students.
Arcidiacono concludes that this apparent personality-score phenomenon leads to what he describes as “the Asian-American penalty”; if that so-called penalty were removed, he contends, Asian Americans’ admission rate would increase from 5.2 percent to 19.2 percent. Is it possible to justify the glaring discrepancies identified by Arcidiacono? Should Harvard admit one out of every five Asian American applicants to ensure its admissions practices are “fair”?