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After Harvard ruling, what next for Asian-American applicants?

Harvard University gate entrance.
Harvard University gate entrance. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

A federal judge ruled unambiguously this week that Harvard University’s race-conscious admissions process was legally sound. But the closely watched decision left a crucial question unanswered:

How should the school — and applicants to it — deal with the consistently lower scores that Asian-American applicants receive on one of the key tests for admission to Harvard?

In her decision, Judge Allison Burroughs specifically pointed to the generally lower ratings that Asian-Americans receive on a measurement of their personal qualities, such as integrity, fortitude, and empathy.

While Burroughs cleared Harvard’s administrators of any deliberate discrimination against Asian-American applicants, she suggested that implicit bias may be at play in the disparity in personal scores.

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That left Asian-Americans who supported the lawsuit against Harvard by Students for Fair Admissions frustrated.

The ruling acknowledged legitimate problems but gave them short shift, said Wenyuan Wu, director of administration at the Asian American Coalition for Education, a group that has opposed Harvard’s race-conscious admissions practices.

Burroughs “failed to explain why Asian-American applicants were held to the highest admission standards . . . and were consistently rated lowest in personal rating,” Wu said.

The ruling “sets a dangerous precedent that condones institutionalized discrimination against Asian-American students,” she said. “It is indeed a disheartening roadblock.”

The ruling came in a case that is likely to be appealed to the US Supreme Court and could have significant consequences for college admissions and affirmative action policies across the country.

Harvard officials declined to comment Wednesday about any potential implicit bias or what steps, if any, Harvard will take next. They stressed that Burroughs found admissions officials acted legally in evaluating applicants and in assessing their personal traits — and that the disparities were “slight.”

The judge called Harvard’s admissions system “very fine” but acknowledged that “it could do better.”

Harvard’s most recently admitted class was 46 percent white and 25 percent Asian-American. Black students made up 14 percent of the class, and Hispanic students accounted for 12 percent.

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Harvard has said it considers dozens of factors in admissions, including academics, extracurriculars, and family background. Generally, Asian-Americans have performed well in Harvard’s academic and extracurricular metrics, but don’t score as well on the more subjective personal qualities.

Harvard’s process of screening applicants for personal qualities such as courage, leadership, and resiliency has been at the center of debate for months. Students for Fair Admissions had argued that the guidelines were too vague and open to potential bias.

Last year, before the case went to trial, Harvard provided its admissions officials newly detailed instructions on how to measure such qualities.

After this week’s ruling, Harvard officials stood by their admissions process and said that it was a victory against efforts to dismantle affirmative action in college admissions nationwide.

“Harvard College’s admissions process aims to evaluate each individual as a whole person,” Larry Bacow said Tuesday in a statement announcing the legal victory. “The consideration of race, alongside many other factors, helps us achieve our goal of creating a diverse student body that enriches the education of every student

Ed Blum, the leader of Students for Fair Admissions, which alleged the university’s admissions process disadvantaged Asian-American students, said his group will appeal the decision.

Still, even backers of affirmative action acknowledge that the case and the ruling have highlighted problems in elite college admissions that need to be addressed.

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Jeannie Park, president of the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance, has defended the university’s use of race as a factor in admissions but said she’d like to see more Asian-Americans in Harvard’s admissions process who have the job of evaluating applications.

“There were a lot of questions raised by the lawsuit,” Park said. “I think the admissions lawsuit was the best training. Every admissions officer was taking notes of all the concerns. You would have to be not human to not respond to all of that.”

Burroughs offered some suggestions for Harvard and other colleges more broadly.

“Notwithstanding the fact that Harvard’s admissions program survives strict scrutiny, it is not perfect,” Burroughs wrote in her 130-page decision.

“The process would likely benefit from conducting implicit bias trainings for admissions officers, maintaining clear guidelines on the use of race in the admissions process, which were developed during this litigation, and monitoring and making admissions officers aware of any significant race-related statistical disparities in the rating process.”

In her ruling, Burroughs urged Harvard and other universities to consider how statistical analysis could reveal “otherwise imperceptible statistical anomalies.”

“These sorts of statistics should be used as a check on the process and as a way to recognize when implicit bias might be affecting outcomes,” Burroughs said.

But the judge also recognized statistics don’t necessarily provide a full picture of human decisions in the admissions process, and some biases may be subtle.

In addition, Asian-American applicants may be receiving lower personal scores because of less-than-enthusiastic recommendations from high school teachers and guidance counselors, Burroughs wrote.

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The three-week Harvard trial opened up an often mysterious process to students, parents, and admissions officials around the country.

Ning Zhou, a Somerville resident and a college admissions consultant, said that the issue of how Asian-Americans are perceived in high schools, colleges, and later even in their jobs — as being too timid, less personable, or lacking leadership skills — has been an ongoing concern.

“It’s good that this lawsuit brought these issues to the surface,” Zhou said.

The case has probably taught admissions officials to think twice when evaluating Asian-Americans and ensure that unconscious stereotypes don’t seep into their decisions, Zhou said.

Many competitive colleges are also likely to increase their training for admissions officers, he said.

And Asian-American students may become more selective in who they ask to write recommendation letters for them, Zhou said.

“This has opened the very secretive process,” he said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.