The Asian ceiling in elite schools revisited
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.