Posted on October 13, 2004

Should Colleges Have Quotas for Asian Americans?

Jay Mathews, Washington Post, Oct. 12

One of the best parts of writing an online column is the conversations that grow out of answering questions from readers. What are at first quick exchanges sometimes turn into long dialogues, from which I learn much from people that I will probably never meet in person.

One of the most interesting and persistent of my online interlocutors is Ed Chin, a physician who lives in northern New Jersey. Chin and I are about the same age, but have different backgrounds. He is the child of non-English-speaking Chinese immigrant parents and grew up in a low-income neighborhood of New York City. I was raised in a relatively prosperous suburb of San Francisco by parents who spoke only English, as have most of our ancestors going back several generations to Ireland and Scotland. Chin attended a very competitive New York City magnet school, while I went to an average suburban high school. We both went to Ivy League colleges, but he enrolled in medical school while I escaped to the newspaper business.


Chin quotes with approval a book, “Beyond the Classroom,” by Laurence Steinberg, B. Bradford Brown and Sanford M. Dornbusch, which says “of all the demographic factors we studied in relation to school performance, ethnicity was the most important. . . In terms of school achievement, it is more advantageous to be Asian than to be wealthy, to have non-divorced parents, or to have a mother who is able to stay at home full time.”

And yet the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action preserved the system at most selective private schools in which Asian American students with very high tests scores are passed over in favor of African American and Hispanic students with lower scores because the schools want significant numbers of all ethnicities on campus. Supporters of such policies say a diverse student body helps everyone learn to live in the real world, and there are plenty of other fine colleges that take students, Asian American or otherwise, whom they reject.