Harvard University admitted a record number of Asian American students to its class of 2027, a move experts are wary of celebrating given the drop in admissions of most other minority groups. It comes as the Supreme Court continues deliberations on a lawsuit brought against Harvard by a right-wing group that alleges race-conscious admissions discriminate against white and Asian students.
In a breakdown of the incoming class released by the university last week, Harvard revealed that 29.9% of admitted applicants are Asian American. It’s a 2.1% jump from last year’s number.
“It’s been part of a long-term trend,” admissions Dean William R. Fitzsimmons told The Harvard Crimson. “The percentages have been going up steadily. It’s not a surprise.”
There are a couple of possible reasons for this, said Julie Park, an associate professor at the University of Maryland who studies racial equity in high education. One could be an increase in Asian American legacy admits, which favors children of Harvard alumni in the admissions process. It also coincides with a population growth of Asian American young adults and high school graduates in the U.S. generally.
“Race-conscious admissions can be very dynamic and institution-specific,” she told NBC News. “Under race-conscious admissions, Harvard has a very sizable Asian American class. … It’s just a natural byproduct that you’re just going to numerically have at Harvard, unless they step away from legacy admissions, which I actually think they should.”
Harvard did not respond to multiple requests from NBC News for comment.
The Supreme Court is currently preparing a decision on Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a lawsuit that alleges the Ivy League university‘s race-conscious admissions process discriminates against Asian applicants.
After the court heard the case in October, advocates fear the conservative majority might mean the end of affirmative action. Students of color at both Harvard and the University of North Carolina, also being sued by Students for Fair Admissions, have spent months protesting and speaking out in favor of race-conscious admissions.
Losing that battle could put lower-income Asian American and Pacific Islander applicants at a disadvantage, Park said, as well as stunting students’ diverse educational experience.
“We know from research that low-income Asian American students actually do receive a boost under these policies,” she said. “They pay attention to not just race, but also ethnicity, to subgroups that have been historically underserved in education, like Southeast Asian Americans and the Pacific Islander community.”
What concerns experts is that, for the second year in a row at Harvard, Black and Latino admits dropped, comprising 15.3% and 11.3% respectively. Native Hawaiian and Native American admits are also down from last year, sitting at 0.5% and 2% respectively.
“While you have seen growth in the Asian American high school graduate population, it is nothing compared to the growth in the Latinx population,” she said. “So it’s really concerning and illuminating that you’re not seeing that similar uptick in admitted students among the Black and Latinx students. … That disparity points to some issues.”
Without a clear breakdown of application data, it’s hard to know why this might be the case, said Wil Del Pilar, senior vice president of The Education Trust, an organization working to fill gaps in educational inequity.
But threats to affirmative action have a chilling effect — not only on applications by students of color, but on outreach efforts from universities too.
“It can have a very detrimental effect on the students who get served and the services that are provided to them,” he said. “When you put it in conjunction with all of the anti-DEI, anti-critical race theory legislation that’s passing at the state level, I think it creates these conditions that can have a huge impact on enrollment.”
Even ongoing lawsuits or proposed bills can have a regressive effect, with institutions preemptively taking money out of diversity efforts, recruitment or support structures.
“The decision may come out and say you can’t use race as a factor in admissions,” he said. “So institutional actors may say, ‘OK, you can’t use race as a factor in awarding financial aid, or in creating student support groups or in targeting enrollment, or in targeting efforts at certain groups.”
Park also cited the university’s high tuition and its emphasis on matriculating athletes, which she says tends to favor white recruits.
“They have these policies that are trying to facilitate equity, but they also have these policies that undermine equity,” she said. “So, you know, I think they really need to take a hard look in the mirror.”