A study released Tuesday by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that New England colleges often favor minority students who meet minimum admissions standards over white students who are just as, or even better, qualified.
Dispelling a common myth concerning affirmative action, the study, which surveyed 200 regional colleges, found that most schools are not “lowering the bar” to ensure that enough minority students enroll. Rather, once minority students reach the minimum standards, they are accepted at higher rates than their white counterparts.
In only a few cases were minority students accepted instead of more qualified white students in the applicant pool considered in the study.
Harvard officials say they do not use affirmative action in their admissions policies.
“Harvard College admissions does not—and never has—used any methods which could properly be called ‘affirmative action,’ Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 said.
McGrath Lewis did, however, confirm the College’s use of active recruitment of ethnic and minority groups. Minorities who have shown themselves to be very talented academically and in extracurriculars are targeted with direct mailings and alumni recruitment.
“Recruitment is not the same as admission. Every applicant competes against every other applicant for available spaces with no targets or quotas or goals,” McGrath Lewis said.
Rather than targeting race or ethnicity alone, Harvard College admission policies look more closely at what McGrath Lewis calls an applicant’s “surround,” which includes things like one’s family, ethnicity and hometown.
“We pay great attention to what [applicants] have done with their circumstances. We think not just about their given surround but also what they’ve done with it,” she said.
McGrath Lewis did allow that if a minority student applicant is considered completely equal in the application process to another non-minority applicant, the minority student will win the tie at least 50 percent of the time, if not more often.
“At that point, we don’t stand back from admitting someone who would bring us something very valuable. But we don’t automatically tip for anyone. No one gets in simply because of the box they checked,” McGrath Lewis said.
Harvard history professor Stephan Thernstrom, whose 1998 inquiry about racial preferencing at UMass-Amherst indirectly prompted the new study, said many New England schools are guilty of using a racial double standard.
“To say that everyone admitted under the racial double standard is just as qualified is just a game of semantics. Though Harvard practices very little, if any, racial preferencing because it has such a phenomenal applicant pool, that’s not typical. Most schools don’t have such a strong applicant pool, so there are some students who get in because of their race,” Thernstrom said.
According to Thernstrom, racial preferencing in college admissions affirms instead of rejects racial stereotypes. Certain minority groups have higher dropout rates than white students, which Thernstrom attributes to the placement of minority students into the wrong schools because of racial preferencing.
“It’s not good when members of an identifiable minority are also overrepresented in the students who are doing poorly academically. Of course, there are minority students who are just as qualified as whites, but many of those admitted by racial preferencing are not,” Thernstrom said.