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SFFA Expert Witness Releases Working Paper Examining Harvard’s Recruitment of African American Applicants

The Admissions Office leads tours from its visitor center in Agassiz House on James Street.
The Admissions Office leads tours from its visitor center in Agassiz House on James Street. By Zadoc I. N. Gee
By Camille G. Caldera, Crimson Staff Writer

A new working paper by Students for Fair Admissions expert witness Peter S. Arcidiacono alleged that Harvard sends recruitment materials to African American high school students who “effectively have no chance of being admitted” in order to raise the number of African American applicants to the school each year and lower the College’s acceptance rate.

The paper — accepted to the National Bureau of Economics Research on Monday — uses documents that the College made public as a part of its ongoing lawsuit with SFFA, an anti-affirmative action advocacy group. SFFA sued Harvard in 2014, alleging that the College unlawfully discriminates against Asian American applicants.

Arcidiacono wrote that 38 percent of African American applicants to Harvard had “essentially no chance of admission based on their test scores alone.” The paper has not been peer reviewed.

Harvard has long purchased student information — including students’ names, ethnicities, and test scores — from College Board’s Student Search Program and other similar recruitment services. When recruiting students for the Class of 2012, Harvard sent out more than 112,000 letters to students as part of the program; for the Class of 2017, it sent 114,000.

Arcidiacono found that — excluding athletes, legacy students, students tapped by the Dean of Admissions and Director of Admissions, and children and faculty of staff — African American students accounted for 41 percent of applicants whose test scores and GPAs fell in the bottom decile of the overall applicant pool. Harvard eventually admitted just 0.03 percent of those applicants.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email that, in a typical year, more than 60 percent of Harvard freshmen were among the names the College purchased from Student Search. The same percentage is much higher — over 80 percent — for minority students at the College.

In the paper, Arcidiacono focused on Harvard’s recruiting efforts from the Class of 2008 through the Class of 2012 because the number of African American applicants to the College grew 58 percent during that period, from 6.4 to 10.1 percent of the total.

“At the same, there was no change over that same period in the share of admits who were African American,” Arcidiacono wrote in an email.

During the time period Arcidiacono studied, the acceptance rate for African American applicants to Harvard dropped from 16.7 percent to 7.8 percent.

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Natasha Kumar Warikoo said that she does not think that admissions officers are “intentionally” recruiting students who do not have a chance of admission.

“What the article is kind of implicitly trying to argue — and they talked about this in the conclusion — is that that the University is doing this knowingly because of an interest in keeping the admit rates of all the different racial groups the same, so that claims that African Americans have an easier time getting in than Asian Americans or white Americans can't be made,” Warikoo said. “I am not convinced that that is what's happening.”

She added that she thinks Harvard lowered the cutoff score for minority recruitment in order to attract more African American applicants and compensate for issues that researchers have identified with standardized tests like the SAT with regard to race and socioeconomic status.

“It’s not a very good predictor of your grades in freshman year, especially for African American students,” she said. “It's highly correlated with your incomes and your neighborhood.”

Warikoo said she thinks that the arguments Arcidiacono makes in the paper are similar to the ones SFFA made in its case against Harvard.

“This does feel a little more connected to the argument they're making in the trial — ‘look at the lengths they're going to create this facade of racial equity and non-discrimination towards Asians and whites,’” she said.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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