Justice Department Says Harvard Hurts Asian Americans’ Admissions Prospects With ‘Personal Rating’

The U.S. Department of Justice says Harvard University puts Asian-American applicants at a disadvantage through the school’s use of a subjective “personal rating” in the admissions process, according to a new court filing in a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of affirmative action.

The statement of interest filed Thursday by the Justice Department supported the claims made by the plaintiffs, who have sued Harvard for allegedly limiting the number of Asian-American students it admits and holding them to a higher standard than students of other races.

The lawsuit against Harvard was filed in Boston federal court in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit whose members include Asian-American students who were denied admission to Harvard. It has become a closely watched battle over how one of the nation’s most selective colleges chooses who gets admitted, and whether the process illegally discriminates on the basis of race.

In criticizing the personal rating, the Justice Department was referring to one component of Harvard’s undergraduate admissions process that evaluates applicants based, in part, on a subjective assessment of character traits.

The plaintiffs have said in earlier court filings that their analysis found Asian-American applicants have the highest academic and extracurricular ratings of any other racial group, but the lowest score on the personal rating, which includes an evaluation of the applicant’s personality. The rating is also based on teacher recommendations, personal essays and admissions interviews, according to Harvard.

Lawyers for the Justice Department said the personal rating reflects racial stereotypes that Asian-American applicants are less “likeable” and hurts their chances of admission despite their higher academic ratings.

“The vague and elusory ‘personal rating’ may be infected with racial bias against Asian Americans,” the Justice Department wrote in the filing.

Harvard has argued its admissions process takes into account ratings on academics, athletics and extracurricular activities, as well as the personal rating. Race is just one of many factors considered, along with socioeconomic background, legacy status and athletic achievement, according to the school.

The government said in the filing that Harvard acknowledged it tends to score Asian-American applicants lower on the personal rating but couldn’t explain why, representing an “intentional and unexplained use of race” in the admissions process. It said the school’s practice defies Supreme Court decisions requiring schools to consider race in a “narrowly tailored” way to achieve diversity.

Photo: Charles Krupa/Associated Press