Fewer Asians Need Apply

Dennis Saffran, City-Journal, Winter 2016

“He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor,” read the reviewer’s note on one application. Another said that an applicant’s “scores and application seem so typical of other Asian applications I’ve read: extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English.” Admissions staff typically ranked Asian-Americans lower than whites in “personal qualities” and repeatedly described them as “being quiet/shy, science/math oriented, and hard workers.”

These comments appear in a federal civil rights complaint charging Harvard University with discrimination against Asian-American applicants. The complaint documents a pattern of bias, at Harvard and other Ivy League colleges, that, in its methods and its impact, closely parallels the imposition of de facto Jewish quotas at these schools in the 1920s. By spotlighting how racial preferences for other minorities have ironically contributed to this reprise of Harvard’s bigoted past, with Asians playing the role of modern-day Jews, the plaintiffs hope to prompt the Supreme Court to overturn Bakke v. Regents of the University of California, its 1978 decision allowing the use of such preferences in college admissions. For, as the complaint starkly illustrates, whatever merit affirmative action may once have had, it is a policy relic of an essentially biracial society of the 1970s that has become ludicrous in the multiracial America of 2016.

The Harvard case and a companion case against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were brought by Students for Fair Admissions (SFA), an advocacy group representing Asian-American and other students rejected by top colleges that employ racial preferences. {snip}

The Harvard lawsuit, with an eye on eventual Supreme Court review, urges the justices to go a step further and overturn Bakke. Laying out a damning indictment that, in using race-based preferences rather than race-neutral alternatives to increase African-American and Latino enrollment, Harvard and the other Ivies have established quotas limiting Asian enrollment, the complaint asserts: “Given what is occurring at Harvard and at other schools, the proper response is the outright prohibition of racial preferences in university admissions–period.” {snip}

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{snip} Asians, of course, have often been termed the “New Jews” in reference to their focus on academic achievement. But as Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden observed in a chapter with that title in his 2006 book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges–and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, this status has also meant “inheriting the mantle of the most disenfranchised group in college admissions. The nonacademic admissions criteria established to exclude Jews, from alumni child status to leadership qualities, are now used to deny Asians.” Golden’s evidence is largely anecdotal, but two recent studies establish a devastating statistical case. In No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life, published in 2009, Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and coauthor Alexandra Radford demonstrate that, controlling for other variables, Asian students applying to highly selective private colleges face odds against their admission three times as high as whites, six times as high as Hispanics, and sixteen times as high as blacks. To put it another way: Asians need SAT scores 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and an incredible 450 points higher than blacks (out of 1,600 points) to get into these schools. An Asian applicant with an SAT score of 1,500, that is, has the same chance of being accepted as a white student with a 1,360, a Latino with a 1,230, or an African-American with a 1,050. Among candidates in the highest (1,400–1,600) SAT range, 77 percent of blacks, 48 percent of Hispanics, 40 percent of whites, and only 30 percent of Asians are admitted.

In an exhaustive 2012 article, “The Myth of American Meritocracy,” Ron Unz looked at ethnic acceptance rates at elite schools since 1980 and found “a highly intriguing pattern” at Harvard and at the other Ivies. Asian enrollment at Harvard increased from about 4 percent to 10 percent during the early and mid-1980s. Asian enrollment then spiked after the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) began an investigation in 1988 into an earlier complaint that Harvard was discriminating against Asians, peaking at 20.6 percent in 1993. The OCR closed the investigation in 1990. Beginning in 1994, the first year in which all students were admitted after the close of the investigation, “The Asian numbers went into reverse, generally stagnating or declining during the two decades which followed. . . . Even more surprising has been the sheer constancy of these percentages, with almost every year from 1995–2011 showing an Asian enrollment within a single point of the 16.5 percent average.”

Unz notes that “this exactly replicates the historical pattern . . . in which Jewish enrollment rose very rapidly, leading to imposition of an informal quota system, after which the number of Jews fell substantially, and thereafter remained roughly constant for decades.” {snip}

These figures actually understate the decline in Asian representation at Harvard, as they don’t take into account that it has occurred while Asians have been the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, with their numbers more than doubling over the last 20 years. The Asian share of the college-age (18–21) cohort quadrupled, from 1.3 percent to 5.1 percent between 1976 and 2011. Factoring this in, Unz calculates that “the percentage of college-age Asian-Americans attending Harvard . . . has . . . dropped by over 50 percent” since peaking in 1993, “a decline somewhat larger than the fall in Jewish enrollment which followed the imposition of secret quotas in 1925.”

Strikingly similar patterns can be seen at other Ivy League colleges. As at Harvard, Asian enrollment rates briefly shot up at Yale, Columbia, and Cornell during and just after the 1988–90 OCR Harvard investigation, peaked in the early to mid-1990s, and then declined significantly. As Unz documents, Asian enrollments at all Ivy League colleges during this period “rapidly converged to the same [Harvard] level of approximately 16 percent, and remained roughly static thereafter”–so static that “the yearly fluctuations in Asian enrollments are often smaller than were the changes in Jewish numbers during the ‘quota era.’ ” Indeed, as the SFA plaintiffs put it, Harvard and “all other Ivy League schools . . . inexplicably enroll Asian Americans in remarkably similar numbers year after year after year.” These figures have remained constant in the 14 percent to 19 percent range, even though, according to one study of “three of the most selective Ivy League colleges” cited in the lawsuit, Asian-Americans constitute 27 percent of the applicants to these schools–and 45 percent of the applicants with the top SAT scores.

Among elite colleges, one school stands out conspicuously in its Asian enrollment trends: the California Institute of Technology. Caltech is the only top school that rejects the use of racial preferences as well as “legacy” admissions for the children of alumni, instead selecting students based almost entirely on academic merit. Asian enrollment at Caltech has kept pace with the growth of the Asian college cohort and now stands at over 40 percent of the student body. Asians similarly account for about 40 percent of the population at the five most selective campuses in the University of California system–Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis, and Irvine–where the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996 barred racial preferences. These figures further support the inference of discrimination by Harvard and the other Ivies.

Anecdotal evidence also proves consistent with this conclusion, suggesting an anti-Asian bias that endures among otherwise devoutly antiracist university officials, for whom Asians embody “uncool,” déclassé traits that offend their liberal worldview. Stories like those of a rejected Harvard applicant profiled in the SFA lawsuit–a child of Chinese immigrants; high school valedictorian; perfect ACT score; captain of the varsity tennis team; even an NPR volunteer!–are legion. Golden chronicled many of these stories in The Price of Admission: Henry Park’s immigrant parents scrimped to send him to prep school at Groton, where he graduated 14th in his class, with a 1,560 SAT score, ran cross-country, and coauthored a published paper in an academic journal–but Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Stanford, and MIT rejected him. Jamie Lee had perfect SAT scores, a 162 IQ, and composed musical pieces, but he was turned down by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT, and wait-listed at Columbia and Dartmouth.

Even more telling are the attitudes of admissions officials who defend these decisions. When Golden confronted him about Henry Park’s rejection, MIT’s dean of admissions engaged in the kind of racial stereotyping that, as Golden notes, would be unimaginable in the case of a black applicant. “It’s possible that Henry Park looked like a thousand other Korean kids with the exact same profile,” the dean said, “that he just wasn’t . . . interesting enough to surface to the top” but was “yet another textureless math grind.” A former Vanderbilt administrator told Golden that Asians are good students but don’t provide a stimulating intellectual environment. {snip}

“Asians are typecast in college admissions offices as quasi-robots programmed by their parents to ace math and science tests,” Golden observes. A Yale student commenting on the Princeton OCR complaint put it more bluntly: “[T]here can be good reasons for the disproportionately low acceptance rates for many Asians. . . . Top-tier schools . . . look not only for good grades but for an interesting student who will bring something of value to the community.” {snip}

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Thus, this case necessarily brings into stark relief the ironic impact of race-based admissions preferences in today’s multiracial society. Whatever the justification for racial favoritism in the essentially biracial era of 1978, when Bakke was decided, the burden now falls largely on another historically marginalized racial minority–a group that is heavily foreign-born and that, while generally prosperous, still has large pockets of immigrant poverty. (See “The Plot Against Merit,” Summer 2014.) Affirmative action, the flagship policy of multiculturalists, has foundered on multiculturalism itself–and it’s time to pull the plug on it. The Harvard lawsuit provides the courts with a good opportunity to do so.

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