Feds Clear Princeton of Discriminating Against Asian American Students

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has concluded an investigation first opened in 2006 that alleged Princeton University discriminated against Asian American students in its admissions process. The two students who brought the complaints — the second of which was filed in 2011 — alleged that they were denied admission to Princeton because of their race and national origin.

The OCR concluded, however, that it would be a challenge for any student to gain admission to Princeton, regardless of their race, and that the university’s consideration of race as part of a holistic process is legal.

In their complaints, the students cited two studies, which suggest that Asian American students are disadvantaged by affirmative action policies at elite institutions. One study, published by Princeton researchers in 2005, suggested that without affirmative action, the acceptance rates for African American and Hispanic students at elite colleges would drop significantly, while rates for white students would remain constant. However, they predicted that the acceptance rate for Asian American students in a race-neutral process would jump from 17.6 percent to 23.4 percent.

The second study — co-authored by Princeton researcher Thomas Espenshade, in 2009 — found that Asian American students needed, on average, SAT scores 140 points higher than white applicants’ scores in order to get into elite colleges.

However, the 20-page OCR letter to Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber says these studies do not constitute legal evidence. Instead, the OCR report found that the university receives a high volume of applications from highly qualified students of all races, and many of them are rejected admission. By contrast, the investigation concluded that Princeton also accepts many less-than-perfect applicants, including Asian Americans.

“The university told OCR that 82 percent of the [high school] valedictorians in the applicant pool for the class of 2010 were not admitted, and over 50 percent of applicants with perfect SAT scores of 2,400 were not admitted,” the OCR letter says.

The letter goes on to say that OCR “found examples of applicants who did not have the highest quantifiable qualifications, such as grades and test scores, who were nonetheless admitted by the university based on other qualities and the overall strength of their applications. Some of these applicants were Asian.”

Princeton provided the OCR with specific examples of such admitted Asian American students, who had relatively low high school GPAs and SAT scores but were notable for doing community service, being a student athlete, or overcoming an impoverished background.

“… Regarding the class of 2010, the university ‘denied admission to literally hundreds of non-Asian applicants … who were valedictorians, and over 3,000 non-Asian applicants with a 4.0 GPA,’” the OCR letter says.

Princeton does not dispute that race plays a role in its admissions considerations, but that it is only one part of the decision. The OCR confirmed that Princeton does not use quotas or create different admissions tracks based on race. Rather, the university employs a holistic approach that asks “applicants about extracurricular activities, employment, summer experiences, family background, artistic and musical talents, athletic abilities and activities, geographic residency, and whether the applicant is the first in his or her immediate family to attend college or if he or she has overcome any significant hardships in life.”

The Asian American Coalition for Education has criticized the report, calling the results “shocking” and “non-convincing.” The group questions why the OCR did not consider data showing that Asian American applicants needed higher test scores to be admitted.

President Eisgruber responded positively to the report in a statement: “I am very pleased that the OCR has concluded this investigation not only with a finding that Princeton did not discriminate on the basis of race or national origin, but that the university’s holistic review of applicants in pursuit of its compelling interest in diversity meets the standards set by the Supreme Court.”