The Ivy Coach Daily

May 15, 2024

College Admissions Officers and Implicit Biases

A brick building sits below a staircase at Harvard University.

Previously Published on October 6, 2019:

In her 2019 U.S. District Court decision that the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately overturned in 2023, Judge Allison Burroughs suggested that Harvard’s admissions officers might well benefit from some training on their implicit biases.

As she wrote in her ruling in favor of Harvard, “Notwithstanding the fact that Harvard’s admissions program survives strict scrutiny, it is not perfect. The process would likely benefit from conducting implicit bias trainings for admissions officers, maintaining clear guidelines on the use of race in the admissions process, which were developed during this litigation, and monitoring and making admissions officers aware of any significant race-related statistical disparities in the rating process.”

Implicit Bias Training Won’t Eliminate Bias in Admissions

But will implicit bias training actually help admissions officers suppress their implicit biases? Will such training lead admissions officers to not discriminate against Asian American applicants? Will the training not lead admissions officers to continue to think to themselves, “Another Asian American applicant who excels in math and science and plays the violin?” Can implicit biases be eliminated in the very human elite college admissions process?

Increasing Awareness About Discrimination in Admissions is An Effective Counter to Bias

Let us be clear that we don’t think implicit biases can be eliminated as these biases are too deeply ingraned. We are all a little bit biased. Yes, even you. It’s how we are programmed ever since the days when we were hunter-gatherers to make rapid-fire decisions.

And we’re not sure that implicit bias training will be any more effective than sexual harassment training in the workplace. Yet we believe that increased awareness about implicit biases can make admissions officers more conscious of their thinking. And we believe that awareness can lead admissions officers to think twice before discriminating against an Asian American applicant (or any applicant for that matter).

The Fight to End Asian American Discrimination in Admissions Calls for a Movement

In our view, the #MeToo movement has led people to think twice before sexually harassing co-workers more than any workplace sexual harassment seminar ever could. And that’s why we’ve long argued that change in admissions starts not in the courtroom but with the populace. 

In its landmark June 2023 decision, the Supreme Court overruled the U.S. District Court decision, banning the consideration of race in admissions decision-making. However, during the 2023-2024 admissions cycle, every highly selective university circumvented the Supreme Court’s ruling by capitalizing on Chief Justice Roberts’ loophole. Wrote Roberts: “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

And just as these schools circumvented the outlawing of Affirmative Action, they continued to discriminate against Asian American applicants in the admissions process. After all, implicit biases didn’t suddenly disappear because the Supreme Court issued a ruling. Real change, enduring change, and systemic change begins with the people, not our courts. Will the people demand change? Only time will tell.

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