In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that universities cannot use race as the determining factor in admissions.
In that case, declined students argued that the University of Michigan illegally relied upon race in its admissions process. As evidence, the students showed that the university admitted more minority applicants than merit alone would explain.
The University of Michigan’s policy automatically awarded 20 out of 100 admissions points to anyone from an underrepresented minority. The high court found that giving this automatic boost amounted to an illegal, race-based quota system.
Therefore, the policy violated the Equal Protection Clause and federal anti-discrimination statutes.
More recently, a nonprofit group called Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard University over its admissions policy. In Harvard’s case, every student was given a somewhat subjective “personal rating.” Points were awarded for things like courage and integrity.
Students for Fair Admissions claimed that Harvard’s personal rating system tended to favor African-Americans and Latinos to the detriment of Asian-Americans.
Was Harvard’s policy an illegal racial quota system?
A statistical analysis points the way
It may be possible to use a personal rating system to discriminate. In fact, before 1920, Harvard itself used a previous personal rating system to discriminate against Jews, according to the Courthouse News Service.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals looked into how many Asian-Americans were admitted vs. how many applied each year. It was looking for trends.
The court found “the amount by which the share of admitted Asian-American applicants fluctuates is greater than the amount by which the share of Asian-American applicants fluctuates.”
There was no clear statistical proof that the personal rating system disfavored Asian-Americans.
Similarly, the statistical evidence showed that the system did not automatically favor African-Americans and Latinos. The admission trends revealed “the opposite of what one would expect if Harvard imposed a quota,” wrote the court.
Therefore, the court decided, Harvard’s policy was not a discriminatory quota system.
This ruling means that colleges and universities can pay “some attention to numbers” of minorities admitted but cannot impose “a rigid quota.”
Students for Fair Admissions has also sued the University of North Carolina, claiming their admissions policies discriminate against Asians. The Justice Department has filed a similar lawsuit against Yale University.
Students for Fair Admissions says that it will appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court.