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Will a lawsuit change Harvard's approach to affirmative action?

Lawsuit Against Harvard Goes After Diversity Model

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As the son of Cape Verdean immigrants, Dan Lobo, from Lynn, believes Harvard’s “whole person” approach to admissions helped him.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News
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Will a lawsuit change Harvard's approach to affirmative action?

Classes ended a few weeks ago, but Harvard Yard has still been packed with tourists flooding through the gates.

A group of high school students from rural Texas was taking a class picture in front of the bronze John Harvard statue, dreaming about what it would be like to attend the Ivy League school.

For Daniel Lobo from Lynn, Mass., that dream became a reality eight years ago when he opened his acceptance email.

"I slammed my hands down on the table and just started screaming," recalled Lobo, 26, as he sat outside University Hall. "My dad was in the next room and was like, 'What's going on?' And I was like, 'I just got into Harvard,’ and then started running around my house."

Lobo, the son of Cape Verdean immigrants and the first in his family to go to college, didn't score that high on the SAT, so he believes Harvard's approach to admissions helped him. The university considers the whole person — not just grades and test scores.

"My life circumstances meant that I didn't have money for SAT prep classes,” Lobo said. “I think the holistic admissions process essentially enabled Harvard to see a potential in me that wouldn't have come through certain parts of my application otherwise."

That process has come under legal scrutiny.

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Harvard Yard on the Harvard Campus in Cambridge.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

Earlier this month, a group called Students for Fair Admissions filed documents in federal court, claiming Harvard generally rates Asian-American applicants lower on intangibles like courage and kindness. Harvard has long considered personal traits in admitting students.

Civil rights activists have described the lawsuit as an attack on race-conscious admissions, which, starting 40 years ago this week, the Supreme Court has allowed if carefully done.

In the landmark 1978 Bakke decision, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, a Virginian nominated by President Richard Nixon, held up Harvard's process as a model in his controlling opinion.

“I refer in my opinion to the Harvard admissions program as one example of how race properly, in my opinion, can be taken into account,” Powell explained from the bench the day the decision was delivered.

"Race is considered in a flexible program designed to achieve diversity, but it is only one factor weighed competitively against a number of other factors deemed relevant,” he added. “Under such a system, each applicant is treated as an individual regardless of race and is considered in competition for each seat in the class."

The federal lawsuit filed in Boston challenges the way Harvard and, as Powell noted in his remarks, many other selective private colleges have been admitting students for decades.

Harvard has defended its practices, by pointing out that Asian-American students account for nearly 23 percent of admitted students.

Harvard has said the group’s lawyers are seeking privileged admissions data that, if released, would compromise student privacy. The university also has argued releasing the data would embolden paid consultants who would purport to know what Harvard wants in an applicant, putting low-income applicants who cannot afford coaches at a disadvantage.

While the case focuses on Asian Americans, the foundation of race-conscious college admissions is at stake.

"This is another attack on affirmative action in higher education," said economist Susan Dynarski, an expert on education policy at the University of Michigan.

Dynarski pointed out that like other extremely selective schools, Harvard only accepts a small percentage of applicants.

"Harvard could fill its freshman class many times over with people who have perfect GPAs and perfect test scores,” Dynarski said. “By necessity they use other characteristics that people put into their applications to weigh people and to choose a class."

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Lobo graduated from Harvard in 2014, and he now works with other first-generation students in Harvard's career services office.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

Dynarski said the lawsuit against Harvard ignores letters of recommendation, personal essays, parental occupation and geography.

The group Students for Fair Admissions has argued selective schools could achieve the same level of diversity by focusing on class instead, but Dynarski said it's impossible to use income as a substitute for race.

"A majority of low-income students are still white because we're still a largely white country," Dynarski said.

To increase diversity Harvard and other schools have expanded their financial aid, accepting more low-income students like Lobo, regardless of their income.

"If I'm accepted to Harvard, I belong here,” Lobo said. “And if I belong here, this is my community."

Lobo graduated on time in 2014. He now works with other first-generation students in Harvard's career services office.

The Harvard case is expected to go to trial this fall and could wind up before the Supreme Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced yesterday he’s retiring this summer, was the key swing vote in the 2016 decision that preserved race-conscious admissions.

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