Getting into Harvard is tough enough: Every year come the stories about applicants who built toilets in developing countries, performed groundbreaking lunar research, or won national fencing competitions, whatever it takes to edge out the competition. So you can imagine that the 52-year-old Florida businessman and author Yukong Zhao is incensed that gaining admission may be even harder for his children—because of their race.
“It’s not a political issue,” he says. “It’s a civil-rights issue.”
Mr. Zhao helped organize 64 groups that last month asked the Education Department to investigate Harvard University for discriminating against Asian-Americans in admissions. The allegation is that Harvard is holding Asian-Americans to higher standards to keep them from growing as a percentage of the student body. The complaint, filed also with the Justice Department, follows a lawsuit against the university last fall by the nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions.
First, a few facts. Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and the share of college-age Asian-Americans climbed to 5.1% in 2011 from 3% in 1990. Yet according to independent research cited in the complaint, members of this 5% make up roughly 30% of National Merit semifinalists, a distinction earned by high-school students based on PSAT scores. Asian-American students seem to win a similar share of the Education Department’s Presidential Scholar awards, “one of the nation’s highest honors for high-school students,” as the website puts it. By any standard, Asian-Americans have made remarkable gains since 1950. They constituted 0.2% of the U.S. population then, due in part to the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.