By John S. Rosenberg
On February 2 Daniel Golden, former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of a highly regarded book on college admissions, reported in Bloomberg's Business Week that Harvard and Princeton are being investigated by the Dept. of Education's Office for Civil Rights for discrimination against Asians.
It's not the first time. In
fact, for the past decade or so there has been a rising tide of accusations
that the Ivies and other selective institutions treat Asians as the "new
Jews" (referring to quotas on Jews in the Ivies and elsewhere early in the
20th Century, and often beyond), holding them to much higher admission
standards than applicants from other groups in order to prevent their "over
representation" and thus make room for the "under-represented" blacks and
Hispanics admitted under much lower affirmative action standards.
Harvard and Princeton, of
course, deny the accusation. Harvard "does not discriminate against
Asian-American applicants," spokesman Jeff Neal told Business Week. "Our
review of every applicant's file is highly individualized and holistic, as we
give serious consideration to all of the information we receive and all of the
ways in which the candidate might contribute to our vibrant educational
environment and community." Princeton read from the same script: The college
"doesn't discriminate on the basis of race or national origin," claimed
spokesman Martin Mbugua. "We make admissions decisions on a case-by-case basis
in our efforts to build a well-rounded, diverse class."
Do Admissions Officers Really Believe What They Say?
Of course, despite all the
smoke they blow (and, it would appear, inhale) about "holistic," "highly
individualized," "case by case" evaluations, if admissions offices did not
allow race to be the determining factor in many cases, how would they know
whether any particular applicant would contribute to the pigmentary "diversity"
they so diligently seek? It is simply a fact, as Roger
Clegg has cogently pointed out, "if you consider race, then in some
instances it's going to make a difference in whether a person is admitted
(otherwise, why bother to consider it?), and when that happens, you have racial
Extensive evidence that Asian American applicants must jump a much higher bar to gain admission to elite universities than applicants from other groups and that they have been the big gainers where affirmative action has been dropped has long been available and should no longer surprise anyone. For example, in a widely discussed Wall Street Journal article back in 2006, Is Admissions Bar Higher for Asians At Elite Schools? Daniel Golden (the author of last week's Business Week article linked above) noted a Center for Equal Opportunity study finding that Asian applicants to the University of Michigan in 2005 had a median SAT score that was "50 points higher than the median score of white students who were accepted, 140 points higher than that of Hispanics and 240 points higher than that of blacks." That study also found that "among applicants with a 1240 SAT score and 3.2 grade point average in 2005, the university admitted 10% of Asian-Americans, 14% of whites, 88% of Hispanics and 92% of blacks." Golden also reported that after California abolished racial preference the percentage of Asian-Americans accepted at Berkeley increased from 34.6% in 1997, the last year of legal affirmative action, to 42% entering in fall 2006.
Although it is widely
thought, especially by defenders of affirmative action, that whites benefit
when racial preferences are eliminated (indeed, those defenders frequently
accuse critics of being racists whose purpose is to benefit whites), that is
not the case. As I noted here,
data, the proportion of white freshmen entering the University of
California system "fell from 40% in 1997 to 34% in 2005."
A 140-Point SAT Disadvantage for Asians
Similar data abound. In 2005, for example, Thomas Espenshade, a Princeton sociologist (more on him below), and a colleague published an article demonstrating that if affirmative action were eliminated across the nation "Asian students would fill nearly four out of every five places in the admitted class not taken by African-American and Hispanic students, with an acceptance rate rising from nearly 18 percent to more than 23 percent." In a 2009 Inside Higher Ed article based on his book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life, Espenshade and another colleague wrote that
[c]ompared to white applicants at selective private colleges and universities, black applicants receive an admission boost that is equivalent to 310 SAT points, measured on an all-other-things-equal basis. The boost for Hispanic candidates is equal on average to 130 SAT points. Asian applicants face a 140 point SAT disadvantage.
Summarizing Espenshade's findings, Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, gingerly concluded that "[s]ignificant advantages and disadvantages exist for members of some racial and ethnic groups with regard to the SAT or ACT scores they need to have the same odds of admission as members of other groups." Since Espenshade concludes that black applicants to selective universities receive a 450 point "boost" compared to otherwise similarly qualified Asian applicants, I'd say that Jaschik's statement oozes with obfuscatory politically correct understatement.
That same tone suffuses
article last week on the recent charge of anti-Asian discrimination at
Harvard and Princeton. Because affirmative action is grounded (notwithstanding
all the transparent claptrap about "diversity") in a desire to help minorities,
evidence that it significantly harms an ethnic minority makes its academic
supporters as uncomfortable as a skunk at a garden party. Since they can't
refute the evidence, they try to argue that it doesn't mean what it obviously
Perhaps the Asians, they insinuate, are overly sensitive, imagining discrimination where it doesn't exist. Here's how Jaschik frames the issue (emphasis added):
What does it say about college admissions that a group achieving considerable academic success believes it is being held to unfair standards? Is there really proof to back up the widespread perception of bias? Are those who are convinced of bias relying solely on certain numeric measures? Are colleges hiding behind codes (such as the desire for someone who is "well-rounded" or concerns about "grinds") to discriminate against Asian applicants?
Real Bias or Just 'Belief in Bias'?
Jaschik's article is
characterized by this trope of a "belief in bias." A few examples:
- Admissions counselors and advocates for Asian-American students say that belief in bias is widespread -- and that the belief alone should be cause for concern....
- David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said "he is aware of (and concerned about) the way many applicants see this issue ... 'but I suspect it's much more complicated.'"
- "In some cases, colleges have adopted policies that some see as hurting Asian-American applicants -- without necessarily violating the law."
- "Debates over the relative merits of standardized tests also tend to be viewed by many through their impact on different applicant groups."
- "Many advocates for Asian-American students believe that some elite college admissions officers use phrases like "well-rounded" to favor white applicants of lesser academic quality over Asian-American applicants."
In addition to implying that the "belief" in discrimination reflects little more than overheated Asian-American imaginations, Jaschik's article also argues through its quotations of various defenders of affirmative action -- and, as we shall see, through misleading summarizing by Jaschik himself -- that treating Asian-American applicants significantly worse than other applicants does not amount to discriminating against them and should not be used to discredit affirmative action.
Robert Teranishi, associate
professor of higher education at New York University and author of Asians in
the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education,
is "worried about efforts to link alleged bias against Asian-American
applicants to broader debates over affirmative action." According to Teranishi,
"many Asian-American students in the United States" -- such as poor recent
immigrants -- "deserve and benefit from affirmative action." Really? That sounds
doubtful to me, but perhaps Prof. Teranishi's book presents data on vasts numbers
of Asian-American applicants who are given preferential treatment in admission.
The most dramatic, and unconvincing, denials that the data of Prof. Espenshade and others demonstrating the significantly higher hurdles faced by Asian-Americans amounts to discrimination against them comes from ... Prof. Espenshade himself, who combines the mistaken Asian "beliefs" discussed above with outright denials of discrimination. In an interview last week with Jaschik,
Espenshade said that "all other things equal, Asian-American students are at a disadvantage relative to white students, and at an even bigger disadvantage relative to black and Latino students." But he was quick to add that "this doesn't mean there is discrimination."
He noted that the modeling he has done is based on quantifiable measures such as grades and test scores. "We don't have access to all the information an admissions dean does," he said. "We don't have extracurriculars. We don't have personal statements or guidance counselors' recommendations. We're missing some stuff."
Those who assume that average scores indicate bias may not understand the many factors that go into college admissions at elite private colleges, he said. "The fact that these institutions are looking for a multiplicity of talent is more understood in some communities than others," he said. "There might be a tendency of many Asian-American students to think that academic credentials are going to carry not only the most weight, but all the weight, in who gets admitted, and that isn't so."
The Ever-Handy Excuse of 'Soft Variables'
Prof. Espenshade has been running from the implications of his research findings for years, as I argued here on Minding The Campus nearly two years ago. In a 2009 interview, for example, he told the Daily Princetonian that he did not use the word "discrimination" in discussing his study because "he did not have access to what he called 'soft variables,' like extracurriculars and teacher recommendations.
"The data we had is only
part of the data that admission deans have access to," Espenshade said. "If we
had access to the full range of info, it could put Asian candidates in a
different light. This so-called 'Asian disadvantage' does not necessarily mean
that Asian applicants are being discriminated against."
Leaving aside the awkward assertion that Asians have "a tendency" to "think" or "assume" or "believe" things that are not true and "may not understand" the complexity of the admissions process that is "more understood" in other "communities," Prof. Espenshade doesn't seem to recognize the clear implication of his reference to "soft variables" to deny discrimination: if there's no discrimination, it's because blacks and Hispanics are so much better at writing personal statements and performing extracurricular activities and securing outstanding letters of recommendation that their superior performance in these areas, compared to the hapless Asians, balances out their deficits in grades and test scores. Prof. Espenshade leans over so far backwards in attempting to deny discrimination against Asians that he stumbles well past lame or silly into territory, as I wrote on this site back in 2010, that "is almost humorously dumb, and offensive."
The only person in Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik's article who tries even harder than Prof. Espenshade to escape to the implications of Prof. Espenshade's data is ... Scott Jaschik. Referring to Prof. Espenshade's book, Jaschik writes that "Asian-American applicants need SAT scores of about 140 points higher than students from other groups with equivalent academic qualifications to get admitted to competitive private institutions." But that's not at all what's in Prof. Espenshade's book or even what Prof. Espenshade wrote on Inside Higher Ed back in 2009. As we saw above, Espenshade wrote there that Asians must score 140 higher on the SAT than similarly qualified whites, not "students from other groups," and that they must score 450 points higher than similarly qualified blacks.
Sometimes in the defense of affirmative action simple obfuscation isn't sufficient. Those times call for outright denial, and editor Jaschik proves he is up to the task.
John S. Rosenberg is a lapsed historian blogging at Discriminations.