The chances of Asian American or white students getting into Yale University are one-tenth to one-fourth of those of comparably qualified African American applicants, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded Thursday.
Following a two-year investigation into the Ivy League school’s admissions practices, Justice Department officials called Yale’s policy illegal, saying it violates the nation’s 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. They ordered the school to change its procedures or face a federal lawsuit.
“There is no such thing as a nice form of race discrimination,” Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said. “Unlawfully dividing Americans into racial and ethnic blocs fosters stereotypes, bitterness, and division.”
Even though it is a private institution, Yale receives federal funding for numerous initiatives. The school relies heavily on the popular Pell Grants, which provide financial awards that offset tuition for low-income students, to attract an economically diverse student body. According to the American Talent Initiative, a philanthropy group focused on expanding college opportunities for low- and middle-income students, about 1 in 5 Yale underclassmen qualify for the grants, which can range from $650 to more than $6,000 annually.
University officials denounced the decision, claiming the Justice Department rushed to judgment. They say Yale’s use of race in admissions aligns with affirmative action protocols.
“Given our university’s commitment to complying with federal law, I am dismayed that the DOJ inexplicably rushed to conclude its investigation without conducting a fully informed analysis, which would have shown that Yale’s practices absolutely comply with decades of Supreme Court precedent,” Yale President Peter Salovey said.
That long-standing precedent allows colleges to use race as a factor in admissions provided it is “narrowly tailored” to remedy racial imbalances and it functions solely as a “plus factor” to give students of certain races a leg up. Universities nationwide routinely use affirmative action to maintain a diverse student body.
Yale spokeswoman Karen N. Peart said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the school looks at the “whole person” when deciding whom to admit: “We take into consideration a multitude of factors, including their academic achievement, interests, demonstrated leadership, background, success in taking maximum advantage of their secondary school and community resources, and the likelihood that they will contribute to the Yale community and the world.”
Some Yale students spoke out against the ruling. “When I talk to my Asian American friends, this is not what we wanted,” Alec Dai, a Yale senior whose parents immigrated from Guangzhou, China, told The New York Times. “It’s not like people on campus were asking for this kind of justice that doesn’t exist.”
Schools have provoked controversy both for using and forgoing affirmative action. At Harvard University, a group of Asian American students filed a complaint in 2014 against the school’s race-conscious admissions policies. A federal judge ruled in October 2019 that the elite school’s process, while “not perfect,” was constitutional. The plaintiffs appealed, and arguments are scheduled for next month. On the flip side, the University of California’s long-standing ban on affirmative action faces a potential reversal. Voters in the Golden State will determine the fate of the 25-year-old law in November.
Swan Lee, the co-founder of the Asian American Coalition for Education, one of the groups that initiated the original 2016 complaint that launched the Yale investigation, told The New York Times the announcement was “a breath of fresh air for a lot of Asian American parents.” Lee said a Justice Department lawsuit would help unveil school’s closely guarded admissions criteria. She hopes that greater transparency will improve the admissions process for everyone.