Five Things to Know About the Justice Department's Affirmative Action Investigation into Harvard

Last week we learned that the Justice Department found Harvard University "out of compliance" with how they use affirmative action in the admissions process. The investigation results from ongoing complaints and lawsuits filed by Asian American student groups who claim discrimination against a number of elite colleges, including Harvard. Asian Americans assert that they are held to a higher standard in the admissions process.

There are still plenty of hurdles to overcome on both sides of the issue, but this marks a seismic shift in the discussion of race-based admissions which is employed by all highly selective colleges in the United States. For those students and families who are wondering how they will be impacted, here are five things to know:


1. It is only an investigation right now, but all elite colleges, not just Harvard, are on notice.

This means elite colleges are going to have to be very careful in evaluating all applications this year and into the future.

2. The students who are most affected by the investigation come from Asian backgrounds, especially Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, and South Asian Americans.

Students from these racial backgrounds have, on average, some of the highest standardized test scores, grades, and most challenging curriculum in an elite college's applicant pool.

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3. Claims of discrimination against White students have been swirling as well.

White students coming from upper middle class families, and Jewish American families, specifically, typically have very similar academic profiles as the top Asian students in an applicant pool.

4. If a student doesn't self-identify as Asian or White, there is no way for the student to claim racial discrimination or bias in the college admissions process.

For years, many Asian and White students decided not to self-identify in the application process out of fear of being discriminated for their race. But the reality was that discrimination occurred whether these students self-identified or not as college admissions officers look at a student's name, parents' information, address and high school to determine how their background influenced their achievement.

5. While a decision on whether or not Harvard violated federal law may be months or even years away, the Justice Department's investigation will undoubtedly change how elite colleges train their admissions staff and evaluate applications in the future.


For the current admissions cycle, elite colleges will need to be prepared to justify some or all of their admissions decisions. This will undoubtedly affect how quickly they read and evaluate an application, which in recent years, has been reduced to mere minutes and sometimes even seconds.

Race influences how much time an admissions officer spends on an application, and it has been a tipping factor in college admissions for decades. This new development with Harvard suggests, however, that when race is used to disadvantage a student or an entire racial or ethnic group, the federal government may intervene.