The College Admissions Case You’re Not Reading About

The little-noticed admissions lawsuit may show another bias toward the status quo, says Korn Ferry’s Karen Huang.

Karen Huang, PhD, is a senior manager for search assessment at Korn Ferry. Read more on the case here.

They are separate cases—one getting a lot of press and the other churning through the legal process. But in the all-important college admission practices of today, they may wreak havoc on efforts intended to diversify student bodies.

By now you’ve heard about the celebrities and CEOs whom the FBI alleges paid a combined $25 million over an eight-year period to the founder of a college exam prep company to help fake test scores, athletic achievements, and even ethnicities for the students to gain admission to Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and other colleges. Less sexy, but no less important, is a lawsuit filed on behalf of Asian American applicants alleging that Harvard University’s admissions process unfairly discriminates against them.

At first blush, these two situations couldn’t be more different. One involves breaking multiple laws, for starters. But the reality is that they both share, consciously or not, a bias to maintain the status quo. That bias often results in underrepresented groups competing against each other for a limited number of opportunities.

The bribery scandal, for instance, mostly consists of wealthy white parents trying to buy their kids an advantage. The crux of the lawsuit against Harvard alleges that white applicants overwhelmingly benefit from the university’s application review process. It cites a specific, subjective “personal rating” Harvard uses which significantly underrates Asian American students relative to their peers. While Asian Americans outperform or equal other groups on all other key admissions criteria, including strong academic records and test scores, they scored poorly when assessed for personal characteristics such as “effervescence,” “likeability,” “humor,” and “leadership.” Only 21% of Asian American applicants receive high personal ratings scores, while about 30% of white applicants, 33% of Hispanic applicants, and 43% of African American applicants score high on this metric.

The parallels between the two cases and how diversity and inclusion play out in the real world are striking. Both instances show how underrepresented groups are often the victims of explicit and implicit bias. What one person considers likeable or funny, for instance, could be unlikeable and ill-humored to the next.

To take that a step further, consider that, as the lawsuit notes, the percentage of legacy admissions—students who had a relative attend Harvard—is much higher than the overall admissions rate. The overall admission rate is around 6%, but for legacy candidates, the vast majority of whom are white, it was an estimated 29% of the 2021 freshman class. Between 2010 and 2015, Harvard admitted more white legacy students than all Asian American, African American, and Hispanic students combined.

These two cases offer lessons for corporate leaders. To be sure, the same biases that lead parents to illegally funnel millions of dollars to someone to get their kids into a top-tier school or admissions officers to underrate certain applicants may also explain why diverse talent isn’t advancing into leadership roles. To truly embed diversity and inclusion into an organization or university requires the willingness to explore some long-standing traditions that have a larger impact on limiting diversity than they intend.