Former Ivy League admissions dean: 'racial stereotyping is alive and well'


Highly qualified Asian American college applicants may be rejected from elite schools because of their race, according to Sara Harberson, a former Ivy League admissions dean.


"Nowadays nobody on an admissions committee would dare use the term racial 'quotas,' but racial stereotyping is alive and well," Harberson writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. "And although colleges would never admit students based on 'quotas,' they fearlessly will 'sculpt' the class with race and gender percentages in mind."

Harberson is the former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the former dean of admissions and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall College.

Many elite colleges, according to Harberson, use "holistic admission" standards, which "allows a college to factor in a student's background, challenges overcome, extracurricular involvement, letters of recommendation, special talents, writing ability and many other criteria." Additionally, as long as there are no strict quotes, private and public universities can include race in their discussions about an applicant.

In some cases, Harberson argues, the consideration of race will work against Asian American students:


For example, there's an expectation that Asian Americans will be the highest test scorers and at the top of their class; anything less can become an easy reason for a denial. And yet even when Asian American students meet this high threshold, they may be destined for the wait list or outright denial because they don't stand out among the other high-achieving students in their cohort. The most exceptional academic applicants may be seen as the least unique, and so admissions officers are rarely moved to fight for them.

In the end, holistic admissions can allow for a gray zone of bias at elite institutions, working against a group such as Asian Americans that excels in the black-and-white world of academic achievement.

The op-ed comes in the middle of a major discussion about the use of race in college admissions, specifically regarding Asian American students.

Harvard University Admissions Financial Aid Office Campus Student

Glen Cooper/Getty Images

Freshman Winston Yan enters the Admissions Building at Harvard University September 12, 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In May, a coalition of Asian American advocacy groups filed a federal complaint against Harvard University, alleging that the school used racial quotas. This action joined lawsuits filed last year against Harvard and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, filed by a group called "Students for Fair Admission."


"Students for Fair Admission's complaint highlights data and analysis that strongly suggests that white, African-American, and Hispanic applicants are given racial preferences over better qualified Asian Americans applying for admission to Harvard," the group said in a press release.

In a statement following the May federal complaint, Harvard University General Counsel Robert Iuliano writes, "The College's admissions policies are fully compliant with the law and are essential to the pedagogical objectives that underlie its educational mission ... the College considers each applicant through an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide-range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations."

Some college admissions consultants are now targeting Asian American families to help them battle what they're calling the "bamboo ceiling" at elite schools.

"Don't talk about your family coming from Vietnam with $2 in a rickety boat and swimming away from sharks," Asian Advantage College Consulting founder James Chen recently told The Boston Globe.

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