By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Princeton University did not discriminate against Asian applicants seeking to enroll in the Ivy League school, the federal government concluded after an investigation based on complaints involving two students the school had rejected.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said in a Sept. 9 letter to university President Christopher L. Eisgruber that it had reviewed “15 years’ worth of admission data and found insufficient evidence that the university discriminated against Asian applicants, on the basis of race or national origin, in its undergraduate admissions process in the years reviewed.”
The outcome of the probe was trumpeted by Princeton as a resounding endorsement of its attempts to have a diverse student body.
“I am very pleased that the OCR has concluded this investigation not only with a finding that Princeton did not discriminate on the basis of race or national origin, but that the University’s holistic review of applicants in pursuit of its compelling interest in diversity meets the standards set by the Supreme Court,” Mr. Eisgruber said in a statement.
Yet it also represents the latest development in a running battle around the country between Asian students and top universities.
In other similar instances, Asian-Americans contend that those schools are waging a war of reverse affirmative action against them by barring them from admission, despite superior academic performance and other accomplishments outside the classroom.
But in the Princeton case, the government said the university uses race as a factor in its admission process in a way that is consistent with past Supreme Court rulings to create a diverse student body. Diversity is seen a key goal at a school that in March announced that it had admitted only 6.99 percent of the 27,290 applicants vying to join the class of 2019.
The government said it had “found that the university pursued a broad definition of diversity, for which race and national origin were among many other factors that were considered in the university’s effort to assemble broadly diverse classes of students,” the government’s letter to Mr. Eisgruber said.
In this matter, the school was hit with complaints in 2006 by an Asian applicant and in 2011 by the parents of an Indian-American applicant, with the parents also alleging that the school discriminated against Indians “in general” and other Asians when selecting the class of 2015. The applicants were not identified in the letter to Mr. Eisgruber.
The government said that after reviewing Princeton’s admission policies, it uncovered “no evidence that the university tried to cap or otherwise limit the number of applicants who would be admitted from any race or national origin group.” Moreover, data the government looked at showed that the percentage of Asian students getting into Princeton has risen from 14.2 percent of the class of 2007 to 25.4 percent of the class of 2014.
Enrollment data for 2014-15 showed that of the 5,258 undergraduates at Princeton, there were 2,417 whites, 1,097 Asians and other minorities making up the rest. The school has said the enrollment growth of Asians is “underreported” since it only tracks those Asians who are American citizens or permanent residents, not those from other countries or attending U.S. high schools, the government noted in the letter.
But Yukong Zhao, one of the leaders of the Asian-American Coalition for Education, said Wednesday that research has shown that top universities have capped the admission rate of Asian applicants from 15 percent to 19 percent over the past 20 years. He said that has created a “defacto racial quota.”
“In the name of diversity, they are doing racial balancing,” he said.
He said Asian applicants are held to a higher standard than applicants of other races, with admission officers looking for ways to exclude them despite them having better credentials, in and out of the classroom, than their peers.
Michael Wang, a California resident attending college in Massachusetts, said Wednesday that he has a pending a complaint with the Department of Education against Princeton, Yale and Stanford universities, all of which ultimately rejected his admission applications in 2013. He said he had high test scores and excellent grades and participated in a wide range of extracurricular activities. He said he had felt discouraged that all the work he and his parents had put into preparing him for college had gone to waste.
He said he wants “clarification” on how those three schools use affirmative action in their admission policies.
But in the probe, Princeton told the government that “perfect grades and SAT scores do not guarantee admission to the University,” the government’s letter read. In fact, the school said that for the class of 2010, it had rejected 82 percent of the high school valedictorians who had applied for admission. High SAT scores and GPAs also do not translate into automatic admission.
The investigation showed that the school offered admission to Asian-American students with lesser academic profiles citing one instance where the applicant was a top athlete and two others who had “other distinctions such as community service, overcoming impoverished backgrounds and working in a family business,” according to the government’s letter to Mr. Eisgruber.
The investigation offered insights into the usually secret world of admissions into one of the nation’s most selective universities, a sometimes thorny issue.
Mr. Eisgruber confronted the issue in 2013 even before he became president. At the annual Reunions celebration that year, a 2010 alumnae asked if the incoming class was diverse enough, while an older alumnus warned that alumni would not financially support the school if their children were not admitted.
At the time, he said there were reasons to care about “legacy admissions” and diversity. Since becoming president, he has talked about letting more students into the university, which is expected to increase enrollment.
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer