Yale admissions office reader Kara Miller wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe yesterday alleging discrimination against Asian-Americans in college admissions. She cited a study from Thomas Espenshade, Princeton sociologist, who found that Asians on average needed an extra 140 SAT points to compete with white students. Surprise!
I don’t think anyone will find it unexpected that racial considerations are used in elite admissions offices to ensure a certain level of Asian representation in student bodies (Say, 15–20%). I pick my words carefully here—nothing about quotas or limits—as admissions office pick their words carefully too. Ms. Miller reports this statement from a Princeton spokesperson:
The university does not admit students in categories. In the admission process, no particular factor is assigned a fixed weight and there is no formula for weighing the various aspects of the application.
None of this is untrue. Indeed the “university does not admit students in categories.” Each application is read and judged individually, no blocs are formed, no group quotas met. “No particular factor is assigned a fixed weight.” Sure, but that doesn’t reject the claim that race can and does impart negative weight to an application. There’s no “formula,” but I’m sure this equation looks familiar: Asian + 2400 + piano prodigy = oh, just another one. Would this equation be false if that first term were different? Very possibly. Admissions offices can obfuscate all they want, but the fact is that racial considerations are used in rejecting some Asian applicants.
Ms. Miller appeals back to America’s founding values to declare this practice unjust:
In a country built on individual liberty and promise, that feels deeply unfair. If a teenager spends much time studying, excels at an instrument or sport, and garners wonderful teacher recommendations, should he be punished for being part of a high-achieving group? Are his accomplishments diminished by the fact that people he has never met – but who look somewhat like him – also work hard?
Based on the premise that colleges seek to admit the most accomplished individual students, this argument seems pretty ironclad. If the sole mission of an Ivy League admissions office is to cherry-pick the best and brightest students from the applicant pool, then absolutely, Asians are discriminated against. Asian ethnicity is a distinct and serious disadvantage.
However, if an admissions office’s goal is to build a class, to create a student body that is balanced, unique, and interesting, then the calculus changes entirely, and the practice is far more justifiable. In California, where racial considerations in admissions are illegal, Asians make up 40% of public universities but 13% of the population.
There lies the problem for Asian-Americans. Asians are in fact a somewhat homogenous group background-wise. The vast majority of us are first-generation Americans, whose cultures (and parents) do emphasize the importance of education and hard work.
Do various unifying heritages make Asians all the same? Absolutely not. The model minority narrative strips high-achieving Asians-Americans of individualism. Still, Asian-Americans do share similar backgrounds, and I think universities are justified in seeking out students with unique and contrasting stories for education’s sake.
So are Asians the new Jews as Ms. Miller contends? No, the college discrimination of eras past reflected underlying racism and disrespect. Today’s colleges welcome Asians with open arms—they just don’t want too many of us.
Photo Credit: Tom Sackton on flickr.