By Russell Nieli
Several years ago a Korean-American student in one of my politics classes at Princeton described the reaction of his Asian classmates in the California private school he attended when the college acceptance and rejection letters arrived in the mail the spring of their senior year. A female Black student, he explained, had applied to more than half a dozen of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the nation and got accepted to all of them, deciding eventually to enroll at Stanford. Many of his Asian friends, he said, along with many Whites, reacted bitterly to the Black student's success, some in open disbelief that this student could be so phenomenally successful in her college search. Why was there such bitterness among his classmates, I wanted to know. "Were there better qualified Asian and White students with higher SAT scores than the Black student?" I asked. "Better qualified?!" he said, "there were loads of Asian and White students who were much better qualified, with much higher SAT scores, much higher grade point averages, and who were much more active in student government and a host of other extra-curricular activities than this Black student." To add further fuel to his classmates' anger, he went on, this particular Black student had a cold, off-putting, self-centered personality which hardly endeared her to her classmates. "She didn't make it on charm" was the gist of his further remarks here.
This Korean student's story was in the back of my mind as I read the newspaper accounts about the racial discrimination complaint lodged not long ago with the Department of Education against Princeton University by Jian Li, the Chinese-American student at Yale who had a perfect 2400 (i.e. three 800s) on the newer version of the SAT. Li was a stellar student in high school, who in addition to his perfect SAT score achieved near-perfect scores on several of the College Board achievement tests (SAT IIs), took nine Advanced Placement courses, and had a near-perfect grade-point-average that placed him in the 99th percentile of his graduating class in a competitive suburban high school. In addition to his top-of-the line academic performance, Li was active in a number of extracurricular activities, and was a delegate to the prestigious Boys State. All of this would be an impressive achievement for anyone, but Li was the son of Chinese immigrants, his first language was Chinese, and English was not spoken in his home. Li's academic achievement was a truly remarkable and inspiring story of talent, persistence, and the immigrant work ethic in pursuit of the American Dream.
Li was happy at Yale and lodged his complaint not because of any animus against Princeton -- Princeton was only one of five elite universities that rejected his application (Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Penn were the others) -- but because of a general sense that Asian applicants to elite colleges were being unjustly disfavored in comparison to the members of other minority groups, especially Blacks and Hispanics, and were not being evaluated fairly under the same set of academic standards as others. For anyone familiar with the admissions policies at the more selective colleges and universities over the past thirty years, Li's complaint not only rang true but has been well-documented again and again wherever the situation has been adequately studied. The simple fact is that a Black or Hispanic student with Li's credentials would almost certainly have gained admission to every elite institution he or she applied to. Indeed, an "underrepresented minority student" would have stood a decent chance of gaining admission to some of the schools Li was rejected at with test scores a hundred to two-hundred points below each of his scores on the three-part SAT exam.
While policies differ somewhat from college to college, generally speaking elite institutions strive to have a minimal representation of 5-7% Blacks and a similar percentage of Hispanics in their student body (i.e. roughly half the Black and Hispanic proportion of the general population), though they will almost always deny publicly that they have such numerical target goals in mind. What motivates them is a combination of "social justice" for previously disadvantaged groups, a fear of being charged with "institutional racism" by Black and Hispanic activists, a perceived social need for more Blacks and Hispanics in leadership positions in the U.S., and a peculiar form of post-60s white-guilt-expiation (the latter brilliantly analyzed by essayist Shelby Steele). All of these reasons and motivations, however, are concealed and fraudulently packaged under the beguiling rhetoric of "diversity" in order to make college admissions policies more palatable to the general public and more in tune with the requirements of the two major Supreme Court decisions in this area regarding the constitutionality and legality of racial preferences. (There is no other area of academic life, with the possible exception of the relaxation of standards for athletic recruits, where college administrators, admissions deans, and college presidents are more likely to lie -- and to engage routinely in deception and double-talk -- than on the question of racial preferences in their respective institutions.)
A rough rule-of-thumb is that in checking off "Black" as one's racial category on an application to a highly selective college or university one gains the equivalent of about 75-150 points (out of a possible 800) as a "plus-factor" on each of the parts of the SAT exam and a boost of approximately .4-.5 (on a 4.0 scale) in one's high school grade-point-average. Hispanics enjoy a racial enhancement roughly two-thirds to three-quarters as great as that given to Blacks.
A 2004 study of the admissions policies at three of the most selective private research universities in the country by sociologist Thomas Espenshade and his colleagues has documented some of these racial advantages. At these three elite institutions, "being African American instead of white" was found "[to be] worth an average of 230 additional SAT points on a 1600-point scale [math + verbal]," while "Hispanic applicants gain[ed] the equivalent of 185 points." But "coming from an Asian background is comparable to the loss of 50 SAT points."
The Espenshade team, however, goes on to explain that as sizeable as these preferences are "their magnitudes are biased down[ward] by relying on SAT scores as the sole indicator of academic merit. When such additional measures as high school GPA and class rank are included ... the African-American and Hispanic advantage [in admissions] increases, as does the disadvantage if one has an Asian background." Again, one can well understand the consternation of people like Jian Li.
Although private colleges and universities will usually not disclose data regarding the past or present academic performance of their students categorized by race (they are aware that such disclosure would document the huge racial preferences they grant and the resulting racial stratification of subsequent college grades), we can get a fairly good indication of what is going on by a look at some of the more prestigious public institutions which have been forced to disclose such data either by court order or action upon Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) petitions. The University of Michigan is perhaps the best case to look at since it has operated recently under the watchful eye of the federal courts since the 2003 Grutter decision rejected as too mechanical and not sufficiently individualized its previous policies of racial preferences. Michigan now apparently scrutinizes each applicant's file more carefully but it is still up to its old tricks of counting "being Black" or "being Hispanic" as very huge "plus-factors" in making up its entering class. Indeed, the SAT gaps between recent Black and Hispanic admits, on the one hand, and Asian and Whites, on the other, has actually increased since Grutter. For those admitted to Michigan as undergraduates in 2004 the median SAT scores for the four major ethno-racial groups were as follows: Blacks 1160, Hispanics 1260, Whites 1350, Asians 1400.
These entering scores would closely parallel the cumulative GPAs earned by members of the four ethno-racial groups their first and second year in college (i.e. there was no tendency for the lower scoring groups to out-perform their entering SAT scores and do better in terms of classroom grades than their SAT numbers would predict). Broken down by race, the cumulative grade point averages (as of 2006) for the class entering in 2004 were as follows: Blacks 2.82, Hispanics 2.99, Whites 3.33, Asians 3.26. For those not familiar with the pattern of grade-inflation and grade-compaction at most elite colleges in America these differences may not seem large, but they are actually very large indeed, since many humanities and "soft" social science courses have effectively eliminated grades in the "C" range except for clearly substandard work that in pre-grade inflation days would have received a "D" or an "F". Blacks and Hispanics at Michigan were clearly not catching up to the better qualified White and Asian students, were receiving substantial numbers of mediocre-to-poor grades, and were no doubt viewed by many of their White and Asian classmates as intellectually inferior.
A similar pattern can be seen at the University of Virginia, which published, under FOIA prodding, odds-ratios of being accepted for admissions in various academic years. UVA's statistics show that in 2003 a Black student with an SAT score in the 950-1050 range had a substantially better chance of getting admitted to UVA than an Asian student with SAT scores in the 1250-1350 range. If a Black applicant had an SAT in the 1150-1250 range his chances of admission were about the same as an Asian student with a 1450-1550 SAT. The Black/White disparity in the odds-ratios of admission was even greater than the Black/Asian difference.
These are, by anyone's reckoning, very large differences and explain much of the ill-will that racial preference policies often create, especially in view of the fact that the typical Black or Hispanic student at an elite college or university comes most often from a middle class home and has almost always had the advantage of a decent, usually mixed-race public or private high school education. (Students from impoverished families attending a typical inner-city school system dominated by poor Blacks and Hispanics almost never achieve at the level considered the minimum for acceptance at the more highly competitive colleges).
In an ongoing longitudinal study of students at 28 highly competitive colleges and universities, sociologist Douglas Massey and his colleagues found that White and Asian students expressed a great deal of "social distance" between themselves and the "beneficiaries of affirmative action" and that this had clearly negative consequences for the quality of race relations on campus. "Whites and Asians tended to perceive a great deal of distance between themselves and blacks who benefited from affirmative action," the Massey team writes. Students in general tended to rank each group in terms of their academic promise, "with Asians on top, followed by whites, Latinos, and blacks." The Blacks and Latinos, they found, were clearly perceived by their Asian and White classmates as "underqualified," the Asians as the most qualified.
The Massey group, which surely started out with no bias against current racial preference policies (its study was funded by the pro-affirmative action Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), warned against the harmful effects on college campuses of this general disdain for current affirmative action policies and their beneficiaries. "Such perceptions of distance from 'affirmative action beneficiaries,'" they write, "carry important implications for the general tone of race relations on campus because one stereotype that emerges... is that without affirmative action most black and Latino students would not be admitted. To the extent that such beliefs are widespread among white students at elite institutions, they will not only increase tensions between whites and minorities on campus; they will also increase the risk of stereotype threat by raising anxiety among minority students about confirming these negative suspicions." And we might add here, such beliefs may sour not only Black/White and Black/Latino relations, but relations between Asians and the lower-achieving minority groups as well.
Underlying the huge admissions preferences that Black and Hispanic students receive at the most competitive colleges is the simple fact that college bound students in these groups do not exist in sufficient numbers to satisfy the 5-7% representation goal that most elite institutions strive for. Were college administrators to enroll students primarily on the basis of academic performance without regard to race or ethnicity, projections show that Asian students would increase substantially at the most competitive colleges, while Black enrollment would sink to the 1-3% level, and Hispanic enrollment would similarly plunge, though somewhat less steeply. Instituting class-based preferences rather than race-based preferences, as many have suggested, would not significantly raise the proportion of currently underrepresented minorities for the simple reason that there are a lot of poor Asians and poor Whites with much superior academic credentials to poor Blacks and poor Hispanics.
The reason for these hugely disparate admissions outcomes is very simple: ethnic groups do not perform in the educational arena at anything like parity and over the last 15 years at least, their differential performance has remained remarkably constant. In 2004, for instance, when the average combined math and verbal score on the SAT test was 1026, the scores for the four major ethno-racial groupings distinguished by the College Board were as follows: Asians 1084, Whites 1059, Hispanics 916, Blacks 857. Two years earlier the College Board published data on SAT scores by religious groupings and revealed that Jews, the academically most successful group in the latter half of the 20th century, had an average SAT score of 1161, substantially higher than any other ethno-racial group.
There are very few Hispanic students, and even fewer Blacks scoring at the very high levels on the SAT from which the most selective colleges typically draw their students. In 2004, for instance, while constituting almost 10 percent of all SAT test takers, Blacks comprised only 1.4 percent of those who scored 700 or above on the verbal part of the SAT, and only 1.0 percent of those scoring 700 or above on the math. Since the nation's most selective colleges and universities choose most of their incoming student body from those who have scored at these levels, college administrators are faced with the choice of either forming an entering class that is well outside the 5-7% Black representation range they desire, or according to Blacks a huge racial preference.
Virtually all elite institutions choose the latter option (Cal Tech may be the one exception).
At the 750 SAT level, where schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford recruit many of their incoming students, the situation looks even more ethnically skewed. In 2004, for instance, 25,403 students nationwide scored 750 or higher on the verbal SAT, and 31,316 scored at this level on the SAT math. But more than ninety-five percent of these very high scoring students were either White or Asian. In the entire country that year only 303 Blacks scored 750 or higher on the verbal SAT (1.2 percent of the total), while only 203 Blacks scored that high on the SAT math (a mere 0.6 percent of the total). The situation with Hispanics was only moderately better. The message here is clear: if elite colleges seek to enroll the most academically talented and accomplished, they will be drawing from a pool that is overwhelmingly White and Asian (and among the Whites disproportionately Jewish). If they are unwilling to have an entering class that is only 1-3% Black or Hispanic, they will have to resort to huge racial preferences, even if they try to conceal this fact from the public -- or lie about it, as they almost invariably do.
Our current affirmative action regime is criticized for many things -- its tendency to foster a sense of racial grievance on the part of the disfavored groups, to reinforce negative stigmas and stereotypes about those racially favored, to generate a climate of lies and deceptions among academic administrators, to create a chilling effect on interracial relations on college campuses. But perhaps worst of all is its tendency to distort the incentive structure for members of the lower-achieving minority groups to improve their academic performance. "I can attest that in secondary school I quite deliberately refrained from working to my highest potential," writes the linguist and Manhattan Institute scholar John McWhorter, "because I knew that I would be accepted to even top universities without doing so." From an early age, McWhorter goes on to explain, "almost any black child knows ... that there is something called affirmative action which means that black students are admitted to schools under lower standards than white; I was aware of this from at least the age of ten. And so I was quite satisfied to make B+'s and A-'s rather than the A's and A+'s I could have made with a little extra time and effort."
And it isn't only the students among the lower-achieving minority groups who know about "this something called affirmative action" but their parents and teachers as well, who have less to be concerned about in terms of college admissions when Blacks and Hispanics perform at very mediocre levels in school. Everyone knows that Black and Hispanic students can get into the same colleges and universities as their similarly talented -- or greater talented -- White and Asian classmates doing much less work in school, taking easier courses, and getting much lower grades. As McWhorter concludes, "in general one could think of few better ways to depress a race's propensity for pushing itself to do its best in school than a policy ensuring that less-than-best efforts will have a disproportionately high yield."
If the past is any guide, nothing of any consequence will come from Jian Li's complaint to the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights. Princeton and other top universities will continue their mantra, "We don't discriminate against Asians or any other racial or ethnic group!," while continuing to plus-factor in "underrepresented minorities" at the expense of those like Li unlucky enough to be categorized among the "overrepresented." This, they will say (when forced to confront policies they would prefer to keep secret) is legitimate "diversity enhancement," not discrimination. Which is really a shame, since in the long run the benefits of abandoning "race sensitive admissions" and returning to the older color-blind ideal that inspired the original Civil Rights Movement would be enormous, and would redound to all parties concerned. It would not only improve race relations on college campuses and eliminate the sense of racial grievance among Asians and Whites, but would help to refocus the energies of the Black and Hispanic communities into avenues where they might really do some good -- like improving the educational outcomes of Black and Hispanic youngsters in the nation's k-12 school system.
Russell Nieli is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Princeton University