U.S. Department of Education Investigates Harvard Admissions

UPDATED: Feb. 4 at 3:58 p.m.

The U.S. Department of Education is currently investigating Harvard’s undergraduate admissions in response to a complaint that the process discriminates against Asian Americans, according to a Department of Education spokesperson.

In August, a student whose undergraduate application had been turned down by Harvard filed a complaint against the University, alleging that the rejection was based on race. The Department of Education decided to investigate the claim last month, according to the spokesperson, who asked to speak anonymously based on Department of Education policy.

The same student also filed a complaint against Princeton University, according to a report in Bloomberg News.

In a statement, Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote that the University could not comment on the specifics of a complaint currently under review.

“Our review of every applicant’s file is highly individualized and holistic, as we give serious consideration to all of the information we receive and all of the ways in which the candidate might contribute to our vibrant educational environment and community,” Neal wrote.

Ivy League universities have previously been investigated based on allegations that their admissions processes discriminate against Asian Americans. Jian Li ’10 filed a complaint with the Department of Education in 2006 after being rejected from Princeton, according to a 2008 story in USA Today. That case prompted a broader review of Princeton’s admissions practices.

Harvard’s undergraduate admissions office website says that “[t]here is no formula for gaining admission to Harvard” and that the “Admissions Committee does not use quotas of any kind.”

This type of “holistic” approach—which the College has employed for decades—has been cited by the Supreme Court as an appropriate way to consider race in admissions.

“In short, an admissions program operated in this way is flexible enough to consider all pertinent elements of diversity in light of the particular qualifications of each applicant,” wrote Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the majority decision of the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

Law School professor Martha A. Field ’65, an expert in civil rights, said that the outcome of the current case would depend on the applicant’s evidence, pointing out that admissions officers look beyond numbers when making their decisions.

“For a long time people have talked about [Asian American discrimination] as a potential problem. It’s about time that we look into it,” Field said. “I really don’t know what will happen.”

—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at hrouse@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at jworland@college.harvard.edu.

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