Asian-American admit levels reached record highs each of the past 12 years at Harvard, but last year the University itself was asked to explain its record.
Responding to reports of bias at Harvard and the University of California at Los Angeles, the Department of Education last June began the first systematic inquiry into allegations of discrimination by college admissions policies against Asian-Americans.
Although government findings are not due for several months, they are expected to resolve the rumors that have circulated in education journals, the national media and congressional offices since 1986. In those reports, critics have charged that some colleges--particularly on the East and West coasts--have restricted the rapid growth of Asian-Americans on campus through quotas or other discriminatory measures.
Some observers say that the government chose a selective northeastern college and a top California public school for its first reviews in response to those reports. Education Department spokesperson Gary L. Curran has said only that the reviews were prompted by media reports, internal government notations and other informal sources.
At Harvard, federal investigators have already met several times with University officials to receive general admissions information and to negotiate the release of other data, according to Admissions Officer Susie S. Chao '85. And Curran, who is the special assistant to the deputy secretary of education, adds that his department plans to begin the final phase of the investigation with an on-site inspection by September.
Curran said in November that admissions reviews normally take six months to a year, but he has declined comment on the protracted length of the Harvard investigation.
"I think I would only say that the Office for Civil Rights...is handling this review like many other reviews, and that would be in a very thorough fashion," Chao says.
Since November, when the Harvard and UCLA investigations were first reported, government and University officials have declined to comment.
Curran has said that the investigations--being conducted by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights--are "compliance reviews" to determine whether Harvard and UCLA are adhering to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin, and allows the federal government to withdraw some or all funding from institutions found in violation of the act.
University officials say that government funds make up more than $47.5 million of Harvard's $140 million financial aid budget. Research, construction and other federal grants total many millions more.
The history behind the investigations dates back to November, 1986 when reports in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the weekly news magazines began reporting criticism of Harvard's and other school's admissions policies. The critiques charged that Asian-American admissions rates have lagged behind those of whites and noted Asian-American students admitted generally received higher scores on standardized tests than their white counterparts.
Harvard admissions officials acknowlodged in January, 1988 statement that Asian-American students have been admitted to the College at an average rate of 13.3 percent for the past 10 years, while the figure for white applicants has been 17 percent. However, they claimed that the lower rate stems from the fact that fewer Asian-Americans are varsity athletes or children of alumni, both of whom receive favored admissions status.
Officials also acknowledged that Asian-American students enrolled at Harvard scored on average 20 to 60 points higher than white enrollees on the College Board's 1600-point Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
Although admissions officials downplay the importance of that difference, critics say it shows that to gain admission to the University, minority students must have better academic qualifications.
Meanwhile, at UCLA the review appears to stem partly from a drop in the undergraduate Asian-American admissions rate, which went from 82.4 percent in 1980 to 38.2 percent in 1987. UCLA officials say that Asian-American and white admissions rates remained comparable in 1983 and 1987, at about 60 percent and 40 percent respectively. The government is also investigating admissions at UCLA's graduate schools of public health, management and engineering.
Vague charges that both schools employed quotas between 1982 and 1986 to limit Asian-American enrollment have also surfaced. Harvard and UCLA have flatly denied these claims.
Individual student complaints of anti-Asian-American discrimination have brought limited investigations to Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and Yale.
But the government action did not deter Asian-Americans from applying to Harvard this year, as some had anticipated. About 18 percent of the Class of 1993 will be Asian-American students, up about 3 percent from the preceding class, marking 12th consecutive annual increase. The number of Asian-Americans admitted under Harvard's early action program also grew by 22 percent this year.
Overall, however, applications dropped about 11 percent this year, mirroring a national trend.
"We're very happy with how we've done with Asian-American students," Chao says. "We're confident about how we treat Asian-Americans in the process." David A. Plotz contributed to the reporting of this article.