Society and Culture, Education

The Asian ceiling in elite schools revisited

Image credit: Shutterstock

Image credit: Shutterstock

Last December, I wrote at length in this space about Asian-Americans as the new Jews. My point, drawing on a detailed, data-driven analysis by Ron Unz, was that the Ivies have converged on about 16%, plus or minus a few percent, as the appropriate proportion of Asian-Americans in their institutions, even though collateral evidence tells us that a fair proportion based on their qualifications would be much higher. An article published last week in the New York Times drives this point home from a new perspective.

The title of the article is “Confessions of an Application Reader: Lifting the Veil on the Holistic Process at the University of California, Berkeley,” and it is required reading for anyone who wants to understand how admission to elite universities works. It reveals what everyone involved in the admissions offices of elite universities has long known: “Holistic admissions” is admirable in theory and corrupt in practice when a school has an underlying agenda. The subjectivity of the holistic process permits the school to produce whatever admissions outcomes it wants without the embarrassment of coming right out and saying what it’s doing.

The article is fascinating on its own, but what caught my attention was the contrast between the treatment of Asian-American applicants in the holistic process and the admissions results. By California state law, race and ethnicity are not supposed to be considered in the state’s university system. But as the article makes clear, the holistic process de facto downgrades the role of academic qualifications (where Asians have their greatest advantage) in the admissions decisions, so that “underrepresented minorities” (Latinos and African Americans) can get an edge. And yet, in 2012 Asian-Americans still constituted 43% of the freshman enrollment, about four times their representation in the California population of 15–19 year olds.

That a group can have the deck stacked against it and still produce the results that Asian-American applicants got is dazzling. What would have been the percentage of Asian-Americans in Berkeley’s freshman class if academic qualifications were decisive? Sixty percent? Eighty percent? There’s no way of knowing, but it would surely have been a lot higher than 43.

California has a higher concentration of Asians than the rest of the nation, so we shouldn’t expect the Ivies to have as high a proportion of Asian applicants. But the same is not true of Stanford, just forty miles down the road from Berkeley. Same region of the same state. Even more prestigious than Berkeley. Even more of a magnet for the most ambitious, academically superior students. And yet just 19% of its freshman in 2012 were Asian-Americans, barely higher than the Ivies’ average of 16% and less than half the percentage at Berkeley.

There is no benign explanation for this disparity, unless benign includes “We think a ceiling on Asian-Americans in our student body is appropriate.” That’s what America’s elite universities have decided, and it’s time to demand that they justify it publicly. So let’s have that much-touted conversation about race, but let’s do it about Asian-Americans. Here is the sub rosa rationale for the Asian-American ceiling:

“Yes, they get high test scores and grades in high school, because that’s all they and their ambitious parents care about. They aren’t intellectually curious. They don’t add to classroom discussions. They don’t have any interests outside academics or maybe music. They don’t come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. They don’t add as much to the university environment as other kids whose test scores and grades aren’t as high.”

I didn’t write that down because I believe it, or because I think any admissions officer in any elite university in the country will defend it in public, but because something like that logic is the only justification for a ceiling on Asian-American admissions. Otherwise, it’s just discrimination against hard-working, high-achieving young people because of the color of their skin. And that would be despicable.

11 thoughts on “The Asian ceiling in elite schools revisited

  1. Certainly agree with the subjectivity issue. As soon as evaluation gets subjective the abuses are inevitable. From my experience in life – too often shamelessly so!

    As for the presumed (not Dr Murray’s) motivational base of the typical Asian student, the question remains as to whether there is any truth in that ‘supposed’ intellectual redundancy and parental pressure. There is a world of psychology behind “hard-working/high-achieving”. Maybe it should be looked at?

    I have an Indian friend who use to teach computer studies in Fiji. He told me how frustrated he was with his students “always going for the hundred”. The result, and I (crudely) quote him, is it was all rote and no understanding with the result that they forget everything after scoring their beloved high test scores. He later stressed to his students to stop going for the hundred, and to just focus on understanding. And as he claimed, with excellent (real) results and far more interest and pleasure from his students.

    Maybe some of those Asians and Indians just need to get their maybe over-simplistic “3rd-world mentality” parents off their backs, so as to let their real talent breathe?

  2. Certainly agree with the subjectivity issue. As soon as evaluation gets subjective the abuses are inevitable. From my experience in life – too often shamelessly so!

    As for the presumed (and not Dr Murray’s, I know) motivational base of the typical Asian student, the question remains as to whether there is any truth in that ‘supposed’ intellectual redundancy and parental pressure. There is a world of psychology behind “hard-working/high-achieving”. Maybe it should be looked at?

    I have an Indian friend who use to teach computer studies in Fiji. He told me how frustrated he was with his students “always going for the hundred”. The result, and I (crudely) quote him, is it was all rote and no understanding with the result that they forgot everything after scoring their beloved high test scores. He later stressed to his students to stop going for the hundred, and to just focus on understanding. And as he claimed, with excellent (real) results and far more interest and pleasure from his students.

    Maybe some of those Asians and Indians just need to get their…dare I say it…maybe over-simplistic third-world-mentality parents off their backs, so as to let their real talent breathe?

  3. It’s an interesting scenario because it is very true. I TA’d a political science course discussion section not long ago, and I had one student from Taiwan who was undoubtedly the smartest student in the room (keep in mind, this was someone who lived on the other side of the Pacific Ocean and performed the best in a course about American politics) but she said nothing nearly the entire semester. I’d email her to encourage her to contribute to discussion, and even threatened to mark her participation grade down if she didn’t (as I was well within my right to do), but she never said anything.

    For all that has been made of online degrees and the like, and there is true value to them, there is something indelible about the contributions of a student to a seminar or discussion group or even the campus as a whole. If an admissions officer determines that a student may be brilliant, but not fit for that college’s environment, I think it’s for the benefit of everyone.

    • You are speaking about an international student, while the article is about Asian-Americans.

      If the difference is not clear to you, here it is: one is a non-native English speaker, grown up in a educational system that – as far as I can tell – is focused mostly on absorbing information rather than on participating and discussing it; Asian-Americans are native-English speakers who were educated in the US.

      In fact, my experience as TA for political classes is that Asian-Americans, while maybe on average shier than whites, still contribute significantly to the discussion.

  4. And, if you are an Asian-American parent, you know this and make sure your kid has higher achievement than you might push otherwise – so the effect of higher GPA and activities is even higher.

  5. Seeing that 72% of Asian Americans voted Democrat in the last election, they better not be complaining. That’s what you get when you vote for the pro-Affirmative Action party

    • How does the voting behavior of some percentage of a racial group, even a decisive majority of it, constitute an excuse for discriminating against *individuals*?

    • Except it is the STATE elite universities that have far higher percentages of Asians than PRIVATE Ivy and Stanford.

      But hey, if you’re the product of American education, basic facts and logic hardly matter to you — it’s all about feelings and opinions.

  6. Mr. Murray, thank you for your decency to speak up on behalf of disadvantaged Asian American students in this country. The race-conscious preference in college admissions is dead wrong – we are telling our kids that race does matter and some races have to work harder to gain the equal footings than other races. The only way to promote equality is to promote equality, not promote discriminatory policy, such as the AA in college admissions.

  7. It’s “just discrimination against hard-working, high-achieving young people because of the color of their skin.”

    Asians have been screaming for years about this stuff but it’s systemically supressed by the mainstream media. Proof?

    http://www.blogdenovo.org/archives/001600.html

    http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs-v2/12-682_pet_amcu_aalf.authcheckdam.pdf

    http://sblog.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/11-345-tsac-AsianAmericanLegalFoundation.pdf

    The mere fact that lazy journalists don’t do their research does not mean Asians haven’t been screaming about this for years. But in space – and in liberal circles – no one can hear you scream

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