Asian-American Harvard Applicants Saw Lowest Admit Rate of Any Racial Group From 1995 to 2013

Over a nearly two-decade period starting in 1995, Asian-American applicants to Harvard saw the lowest acceptance rate of any racial group that applied to the school, according to data presented in the Harvard admissions trial Thursday.
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah and Molly C. McCafferty

By Katherine E. Wang

Over a nearly two-decade period starting in 1995, Asian-American applicants to Harvard saw the lowest acceptance rate of any racial group that applied to the school, according to data presented in court Thursday as part of the Harvard admissions trial.

Data for that time period — which begins with the admissions cycle for applicants to Harvard’s Class of 2000 and ends with the cycle for the Class of 2017 — show that Asian-American candidates on average saw an admission rate of 8.1 percent. By comparison, white applicants saw an average acceptance rate of 11.1 percent in that time period, African-American applicants saw an average acceptance rate of 13.2 percent, and Hispanic-American applicants saw an average acceptance rate of 10.6 percent.

The data surfaced during court testimony when Harvard’s lead trial lawyer William F. Lee ’72 stepped up to continue his marathon questioning of the College’s long-serving Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. Thursday marked the fourth day of the trial; Fitzsimmons has testified each day for several hours since proceedings kicked off Monday.

Note: Overall admissions rate also includes Native American/Native Hawaiian, International, and Unknown/Other students.

By Brian P. Yu

The trial, expected to last for at least three weeks, is the latest development in a four-year-old lawsuit that alleges Harvard illegally discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Anti-affirmative action advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions filed suit against the University in 2014. Experts have said that — should the case wind up before the Supreme Court — it could decide the fate of race-conscious admissions in the United States.

The dataset Lee presented Thursday, which appears to be sourced from internal Harvard records, breaks down College applicants into eight categories: white, Asian-American, African-American, Hispanic-American, Native-American/Native-Hawaiian, international citizen, “Other,”and “Unknown.”

Charts displayed on three pages of the 16-page dataset detail the number of applicants and the number of admits belonging to each racial group for 18 Harvard admission cycles starting in 1995. The Crimson calculated yearly admit rates for each demographic group.

The analysis showed that Native-American and Native-Hawaiian students saw an average acceptance rate of 10.4 percent in that time period — but the statistic is likely less meaningful given the relatively small pool of applicants hailing from those racial backgrounds. Significantly fewer Native Americans and Native Hawaiians applied to the College each year than did members of other racial groups.

On average, 4,910 Asian-American, 1,938 African-American, 2,082 Hispanic-American, and 8,685 white students applied to Harvard in any given year included in the dataset. Just 233 Native-American and Native Hawaiian students did the same.

Harvard is typically tight-lipped about anything related to its famously secretive admissions process, though the College’s admissions office does publish the racial demographics of its admitted classes each year.

But it has never before released as detailed a breakdown as the one Lee unveiled Thursday.

The average acceptance rate overall during the time period covered by the dataset clocked in at 9.3 percent. Asian-Americans were the only racial group whose acceptance rate dips below that average.

The numbers also show how the pool of prospective applicants to Harvard has changed since the mid-1990s.

From 1994 to 2014, Harvard saw a 257 percent increase in applications from African-American students and a 208 percent increase in applications from Hispanic-American students. The number of Asian-American applicants increased by 94 percent and the number of white applicants increased by 63 percent.

The acceptance rates for every single racial group decreased during that time period — consistent with the fact that the Harvard admissions process has grown increasingly competitive in recent years. In 2018, the College saw an acceptance rate below 5 percent for the first time in school history.

But the acceptance rates for all racial groups did not fall at the same rate. African-American applicants saw the steepest decline — their acceptance rates fell by 12.4 percentage points over 18 years. In the 1995-1996 admissions cycle, 19.2 percent of African-American Harvard hopefuls earned a spot at the College; in the 2012-2013 cycle, just 6.8 percent of African-American applicants did so.

Hispanic-Americans saw the second-steepest decline of 8.9 percentage points, while white students saw a decline of 5.4 percentage points. Asian-American applicants saw the smallest decrease: their acceptance rate fell by just 3.6 percentage points in that time period.

The overall decline in acceptance rates for all students measured 5.6 percentage points.

The relatively large decrease in acceptance rates for African-American and Hispanic-American applicants likely reflects the fact that Harvard has increased its outreach efforts to communities of color over the past few years. Admissions officers regularly conduct “extensive outreach to minority applicants” as part of the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program, according to Harvard-submitted court documents.

Overall, the data shows, admit rates for applicants of all races have grown increasingly similar over the past two decades or so. And all racial group-specific acceptance rates have inched closer to Harvard’s overall acceptance rate.

The trial is slated to continue Friday morning.

—Crimson editors Brian P. Yu and Phelan Yu contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.

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