The Magazine

The New Jews?

Asian admissions at the Ivies.

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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 percent 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 percent level, and Hispanic enrollment would similarly plunge, though somewhat less steeply.

Although Asians currently make up as much as 30 percent of the top college candidates as determined by SAT scores, National Merit and AP Scholar awards, and grades, the percentage of Asians admitted to Ivy League schools has held steady just below 20 percent. The consistency of Asians' share of elite college admissions is almost as noteworthy as the disparity itself. UCLA law professor Jerry Kang (who favors preferences for minorities) calls this "suspicious" and suspects that the top schools have decided "what constitutes a good mix."

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court cases concerning racial preference policies at the University of Michigan's law school (Grutter v. Bollinger) and undergraduate school (Gratz v. Bollinger) highlighted further evidence of great disparities between groups. At Michigan's law school, the admission rates of "preferred" minorities miraculously held steady between 10 percent and 17 percent in the years for which data were provided. According to Peter Schmidt's Color and Money, "Among applicants with certain grade point average and LSAT-score combinations, the university was admitting virtually every black applicant while white and Asian American applicants had a less than 1 in 40 chance of getting in." (Emphasis added.)

When racial preferences favoring Hispanics and blacks are lifted, the impact on Asian Americans is significant. A 2008 study of changes at the Universities of California, Texas, and Florida after racial preferences were eliminated showed:

At UCB [Berkeley], for example, Asian-American FTIC [first time in college] enrollment jumped from 1,277 or 37.30 percent in 1995 to 1,632 or 43.57 percent in 2000 following the implementation of Proposition 209, and, since that date, the number and percentage of Asian-Americans has increased steadily at both UCB and UCLA, reaching 46.59 percent at UCB and 41.53 at UCLA. For UCSD [San Diego], the number of Asian-American students continues to increase as both a number and percent of the student body, from 1,070 or 35.93 percent in 1995 to 1,133 or 36.33 percent in 2000 and to 1,684 or 46.88 percent in 2005. At Texas, the number of Asian-American FTIC students went from 886 or 14.26 percent in 1995 to 1,311 or 17.74 percent in 2000 and has leveled off at 17.33 percent in 2005, while in Florida, which has a much smaller Asian-American population, the UF numbers grew from 342 or 7.50 percent in 1995 to 518 or 7.84 percent in 2000, and to 531 or 8.65 percent in 2005.

The authors concluded:

Clearly in an open admissions process where affirmative action does not enter into enrollment decisions and where legacy and donor issues are discouraged, Asian-American students compete very well. What the data also reveal is that Asian-American students filled the gap as black and Hispanic enrollment fell following the elimination of affirmative action in California.

(Critics of Proposition 209, which banned use of racial preferences in California state schools, contend that pre- and post-209 data in California are unreliable.)

These and other studies have convinced many that racial preference systems at top public and private colleges in all likelihood have deprived Asian Americans of slots that went to less academically qualified applicants. Steve Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, says bluntly, "If a merit-based system replaced the current system, Asians would be the greatest beneficiaries." As Lee Cheng, secretary and cofounder of the Asian American Legal Foundation (which opposes racial quotas and preferences and filed amicus briefs for the plaintiffs in Grutter and Gratz), says, "The bottom line: If you hold people to a different standard it is discrimination."

So are elite schools like Princeton illegally discriminating against Asian Americans in the name of achieving some ideal racial mix? Hard evidence is difficult to come by because Princeton, like all elite private colleges, jealously guards information that would help divine what its admissions office is up to.