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Appeals court rules Harvard's use of race as a possible criterion in admissions is not a quota, not a violation of federal law

A federal appeals court in Boston ruled today that Harvard's "race-conscious admissions program" does not violate federal law.

The ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upholds a US District Court judge's similar ruling that Harvard did nothing wrong in considering race as one of several possible criteria in deciding whom to accept.

However, the court also ruled that the group that sued Harvard, Students for Fair Admissions, had the legal right to bring the case, which means it could try appealing to the US Supreme Court.

The suit, brought by a group founded by three white people, alleged Harvard had discriminated against Asian-Americans through its admissions policies. The group, which over the course of its litigation opened its membership and now claims some 20,000 members, was backed by the US Department of Justice, which will gain new leadership in January.

In its ruling, the court provided an overview of the detailed funneling of rankings from test scores, interviews, grades and other data by which Harvard officials whittle down roughly 100,000 annual applicants to about 2,000 potential students. Once at that point, officials then used a series of extra criteria to shrink that list down further, to the roughly 1,600 students who will actually be offered admission - including race, all while considering frequent updates from the school about the overall demographic characteristics of the potential incoming class.

The court concluded that Harvard met the requirement of federal anti-discrimination laws - and federal court decisions - that using race as one potential factor in admissions decisions "must further a compelling interest" and that it must be "narrowly tailored" and not an automatic deal breaker for specific applicants nor a formal quota system.

The court noted that the Supreme Court has held, "attaining student body diversity may be a compelling interest, and Harvard proved it has made diversity part of its core mission of educating future leaders since the 19th century.

The court determined that Harvard had "identified specific, measurable goals it seeks to achieve by considering race in admissions," in part through a detailed 2018 report on the issue, that diversity would help Harvard students better prepare for a diverse world and even lead to better original research stemming from a diversity of opinion.

These goals make clear that Harvard's interest in diversity "is not an interest in simple ethnic diversity, in which a specified percentage of the student body is in effect guaranteed to be members of selected ethnic groups," but "a far broader array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element."

The court continued that race was only one element of the school's attempt at ensuring diversity, that it also sought diversity by ensuring students came from across the country (ironically originally used as a way to reduce the number of Jewish students), different economic levels, religions and family circumstances.

And because race by itself does not provide the final determination of whether one applicant gets in and because Harvard was only reaching for a goal of diversity without setting an actual quota, its admissions policy meets federal standards, the court said.

First, the court noted that the percentage of Asian-American students, the people SFFA is purportedly fighting for, both as applicants and as accepted students, rose dramatically from 1980 to 2019 - from 3.4% of applicants to 20.9% in 2019 and from 4.1% of students offered acceptance in 1980 to a high of 22.5% in 2014. The court noted similar types of numbers for Hispanic and African-American applicants.

It is the opposite of what one would expect if Harvard imposed a quota.

Information from this sheet is periodically shared with the full admissions committee, and the committee uses this information in part to ensure that there is not a dramatic drop-off in applicants with certain characteristics -- including race -- from year to year. Harvard keeps abreast of the racial makeup of its admitted class in part because doing so is necessary to forecast yield rates. The yield rate is the percent of admitted applicants who accept an offer of admission. Empirically, Asian American and white students accept offers of admission at higher rates than African American, Hispanic, Native American, and multiracial applicants.

The court continued that Harvard's use of distributing ongoing "yield" data for various groups to officials considering applicants is also OK:

Applicants with different demographics accept offers of admission at different rates. For example, applicants from "Sparse Country" [states with low populations, mostly in the middle of the country] accept offers of admission at lower rates than other applicants. Engineering admittees yield at lower rates. And applicants of different races also enroll at differing rates. To help manage its class size, Harvard includes geographic data, intended concentration, and race -- in addition to many other factors, like gender, [athlete and legacy] status, and economic status -- on its one-pagers. This is permissible.


Harvard's process does not weigh race so heavily that it becomes mechanical and decisive in practice. Harvard's undergraduate admissions program considers race as part of a holistic review process. This use was previously praised by the Supreme Court as a way of considering race in a non-mechanical way. Unlike the program in Gratz, Harvard does not award a fixed amount of points to applicants because of their race.

As might be expected given the issue and the school involved, the case garnered considerable attention. Just the list of groups submitting amicus curiae briefs was longer than some entire court rulings.

PDF icon Complete ruling197.71 KB



That's all it is.
Once a person is judged on their race (even if it's just a little bit) it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In a perfect world admissions boards wouldn't even ask for a students skin color.


Affirmative action IS A GOOD THING. It boggles my mind that this is still up for debate. What, black people and other POC have experienced slavery, a lack of civil rights, mass incarceration, and systemic and ongoing racism, but when it comes to this program that is supposed to help suddenly race doesn't matter and it should be judged blindly??

Sorry, but race HAS MATTERED, and we can't suddenly pretend like it doesn't when we're nowhere close to full equality.

To argue otherwise is to argue "all lives matter", and I'm sorry but I have no patience for that ish at this point.


Harvard should say so instead of saying it only matters a little bit on what skin color a student is.
No one alive today experienced slavery by the way.


I guarantee that your second statement is false.


+1; aside the point but we should don a lite on sex slavery and exploited labor especially in garment and textiles, diamonds, electronics.


theres a reason why the median household worth of an african-american family in boston according to the fedreserve of boston is $8; whereas, for west-indians its something around $12,500 (caucasian families is $246,000).


Slavery in the Americas?
If my Great Great Great Grandfather was a slave what impact does that have on my life?
If my Ancestors were royalty somewhere, would that make me a Princess?


This woman is only 66 years old.

Why don't you tell her that she's had the same educational opportunities as everyone else because slavery is over?

If my Ancestors were royalty somewhere

If your ancestors were royalty somewhere, they'd probably have accumulated a huge amount of wealth and land which would have been passed down for generations and put you at a huge advantage compared to groups that were denied that advantage and not allowed to accumulate that kind of wealth.


Slavery aside, there are many people alive today who remember segregation. And even more who are still suffering daily from deeply rooted racism. Do you think slavery was the end of racism?

I don't see affirmative action as reparations for slavery, but rather an attempt to partially correct an imbalance of opportunity that has maaaybe diminished a little over time, but is still very much present.


Jim Crow, redlining, generational wealth, etc.

You don't have to be this ignorant.


nepotism ?

assuming a new generation is born about every 30 years, we are currently in our 5th generation since lincoln freed the slaves. in your imagination, african-americans 156 years ago ubiquitously were allowed to attend andover or fenway.

we are now in our fifth cycle of slave-owning land owners willing property and businesses to their kin; whereas, minorities have less valuable possessions. the average value of a home in weston is much larger than the value in red-lined mattapan.


No one alive today experienced slavery by the way.

Typical pedantic response from internet trolls, intentionally missing the forest for the trees.


Plenty of people have experienced Jim Crow and unfair hiring practices along with denial for education who are alive now.


No one alive today experienced slavery by the way.

Human trafficking is slavery, you know.

The attorney general’s office is working with victim service organizations to ensure the alleged victims of the trafficking operations have the help and services they need, according to officials.

The office’s Human Trafficking Division has charged more than 60 individuals in connection with human trafficking since the state’s anti-trafficking laws went into effect in 2012, Healey noted.

If no one alive has experienced slavery, why does the AG's office have a Human Trafficking Division?


slave : not slave is not a comprehensive indicator of personal freedom or opportunity.


Didn't the actual statistics that came out of this original case demonstrate that there were no negative effects on white applicants as a result of Harvard's weighting, but there were negative effects for Asians, many of whom have experienced discrimination, mass incarceration (i.e. internment camps), and systemic racism?


Perhaps income could be used as a factor instead.

- John McCain
- George W Bush
- Jared Kushner
- Donald J Trump
- Felicity Huffman/Lori Laughlin’s kids
- Countless other children of politicians and wealthy business people.

“Legacy admission” is a euphemism for white affirmative action. All of these folks went elite institutions because of who their parents were, by cutting a huge check, or by fraud. This form of affirmative action for rich white folks has been around a lot longer than the version you lament here.

Sure, in a perfect world every incoming class at every college would naturally and perfectly represent every section of the population. But institutional systems created a long time ago by affluent (and perhaps well meaning) mostly white folks are going to have built-in systemic biases favoring people whom look like those who created the system.

Of course it would be awesome if race bias did not exist, but it does on both a conscious level and unconscious level. Every single one of us have unconscious biases. Those biases simply don’t disappear by saying “don’t ask a candidate’s race”. Classic face-to-face interviews and the information contained in applications/essays will have more than enough information to make assumptions - correct and incorrect - about an applicant’s racial identity.

The point is that removing a box to check on an application isn’t going to stop college admissions officers from considering race and the solution is not to pretend that race doesn’t exist or it can be ignored.


Sort of. Harvard invented legacy admissions in the 1920s to keep Jews out. (This is no secret - President Lowell was very open about it.) But the school’s Jewish population grew slowly over the decades, and by now, plenty of Jews benefit from legacy admissions. The same happened a few decades later for Asian Americans.

Lowell was more open that that. He proposed an actual quota to limit how many Jews could get into Harvard lest they overrun the place and ruin the breeding stock.

But word got out and even back then, when dear old Harvard had its own Klan chapter, the idea seemed a bit too outre, so he abandoned the overt method and came up with less obvious ones (such as increasing enrollment in what Harvard now charmingly calls "Sparse Country," where few Jews live).


If anti-racism leaves a bad taste in your mouth, what does racism taste like?

The only way some could obtain entry is to cheat. Dead people got into Harvard. Harvard must not have counted all the entry applications....


Whether this is a good idea or not, I can't tell the difference between it and a quota. For some reason the accepted wisdom is this is good, and quotas are bad, and they're not the same thing.


Whether this is a good idea or not, I can't tell the difference between it and a quota.

Might be because you're bad at both math and Google?


"must further a compelling interest" and that it must be "narrowly tailored"

Racism is acceptable, as long it's done in moderation.