In the spring of 2016, the Asian-American Coalition for Education announced it was filing a complaint with the federal government, claiming Yale, Brown and Dartmouth held higher expectations for Asian-American applicants.
"Americans of Asian descent face pervasive discrimination at our elite universities due to admission policies which favor students of one race over another," said Jian Li, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington.
Li, whose family emigrated from China when he was four, explained why in 2006 he had filed his own complaint with the Education Department after he was denied admission to Princeton.
Li cited a 2004 study conducted by three Princeton professors that was funded independently of the university. Their research found Asian-American applicants had to score much higher on the SAT to have the same chance of being admitted.
"I was outraged that in the act of applying to college I would be held to a higher standard because of my ethnicity," Li said.
Li ended up graduating from Yale, and two years ago, under the Obama administration, the Education Department ruled Princeton did not have any racial quotas. It also dismissed the Asian-American Coalition's complaint against Yale, Brown and Dartmouth. Now, the coalition is getting behind a federal lawsuit filed in Boston against Harvard accusing the school of consistently ranking Asian-American applicants the lowest of all racial and ethnic groups in one area — personality.
"We feel the society at large are not paying attention to this issue," Swan Lee, a Chinese-American writer from Brookline and co-founder of the Coalition, told WGBH News.
The mother of three young children believes Harvard's ratings show bias against Asian Americans.
"It is immoral because they are doing this kind of discrimination practice on Asian-American students without having any justification for it," Lee said.
The coalition represents more than 200 organizations that joined the complaints against selective schools. Nine of its 13 board members are Chinese American.
Lee said Chinese-Americans tend to be more vocal in their opposition to affirmative action because in the 1940s and 50s China's communist government favored peasants over landowners in college admissions.
"They would check your family's history and see if your grandpa owned a little bit of land,” Lee explained. “They would take your opportunities away and give it to somebody else who happened to be very poor at the country's very beginning. And they will do this sort of social-engineering, and a lot of families suffered from it."
Lee said her parents, for example, had outstanding academic credentials but could only go to a provincial college, while classmates with much lower grades went to top schools like Beijing University.
In the US, as recently as 2016, the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action, deciding that the University of Texas at Austin can consider race as a factor in college admissions.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan, surprised many observers by writing the majority opinion.
“Although admissions officers can consider race as a positive feature of a minority student’s application, there is no dispute that race is but a factor of a factor of a factor in the holistic review process,” Kennedy declared from the bench.
That holistic review process considers the whole person — not just grades and test scores.
Last month, Kennedy announced he’s retiring this summer. Depending on who takes his seat, the lawsuit against Harvard could be the next legal challenge to affirmative action, a challenge that conservatives are viewing as a priority.
Harvard has denied all allegations and said admissions officers weigh family background, geography and a lot of other factors in order to pick five admits for every 100 applicants.
Harvard has also pointed out that while the percentage of Asian Americans admitted fluctuates from year to year, over the past decade it's grown by 29 percent.