It’s a common belief among Asian-American families that their children are held to higher academic standards than college applicants from other ethnic groups. Such practices were openly acknowledged after investigations at universities like Berkeley and Stanford in the 1980s and 1990s.

Have they been corrected?

The U.S. Education Department is investigating complaints that Harvard University and Princeton University discriminated against Asian-Americans in undergraduate admissions.

Statistics seem to support the claim of bias across most of elite higher education. For example, in comprehensive data compiled as part of Duke University’s Campus Life and Learning project (as reported in a recent analysis by Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono and collaborators), Asian-Americans who enrolled at the school in 2001 averaged 1457 out of 1600 on the math and reading part of the SAT, compared with 1416 for whites, 1347 for Hispanics and 1275 for blacks.

Holistic Admissions

There is every reason to believe that a similar pattern holds at nearly all elite universities in the U.S., with notable exceptions such as the California Institute of Technology. In fact, Duke may be one of the mildest offenders when it comes to Asian-American admissions: With the goal of increasing its overall student quality, Duke has reportedly been more friendly recently to Asian-American applicants than traditional powers such as Harvard and Princeton.

Schools like Harvard and Princeton brag that each year they reject numerous applicants such as Jian Li (who filed a complaint against Princeton) who score a perfect 2400 on the SAT. How would we feel if it were revealed that almost all of these rejected top scorers, year after year, were Asian-Americans? I challenge Harvard and Princeton to refute this possibility.

To be fair, most elite universities practice what is known as holistic admissions: Each candidate is evaluated on a variety of measures, including athletic and leadership activities in addition to academic performance. It is possible that the gap in academic average between Asian-American and white admitted students is compensated by gaps in the opposite direction on these other variables. Looking again at internal evaluations by Duke’s admissions office, we find Asian-Americans had higher averages than whites in the following categories: achievement, curriculum (each about one-third of a standard deviation) and letters of recommendation, while trailing very slightly (less than one-tenth of a standard deviation) in personal qualities.

Lacking data on factors such as legacy and recruited athlete status, we can’t make a complete determination of the fairness of the process, and in fact the appropriate weight of the various factors in a holistic admissions process will be subject to vigorous debate.

Nevertheless, this exercise in admissions forensics indicates how applicants can be reassured of its evenhandedness. The Department of Education will seek data of this sort in making its determination in its inquiry concerning Harvard and Princeton.

Require Openness

Any educational institution, public or private, that receives significant government support should be required to release aggregate admissions data of this kind, which includes information about ethnicity, legacy and athletic status, and all other variables of significant weight in the decision.

Transparency is essential to this important discussion, and the requirement could easily be mandated by the Department of Education. Why are admissions practices at a small number of universities that account for only tiny fraction of all U.S. undergraduates of such importance? For the simple reason that these universities are disproportionately responsible for producing future leaders, innovators, scientists and scholars. They are the stewards of some of the best human capital from around the world.

Further, top U.S. universities are seen as exemplars of excellence by educational institutions here and abroad. It is terribly corrosive to use race as an important factor in what are superficially (disingenuously?) described as meritocratic evaluations. Perhaps the most objectionable outcome is to produce a distribution of students on campus whose intellectual strength is strongly correlated to their race. Surely this is exactly the opposite of what Martin Luther King wanted when he asked us to judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

(Stephen Hsu is professor of theoretical physics at the University of Oregon and director of its Institute for Theoretical Science. He is the founder of two Silicon Valley information security startups and writes the blog Information Processing.)

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen Hsu at hsu@uoregon.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.