The Magazine

The New Jews?

Asian admissions at the Ivies.

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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A young man who was brought to the United States as a toddler, Jian Li, has shaken up the civil rights establishment and Ivy League colleges and rekindled a fierce debate over racial preferences at America's elite institutions of higher learning. For parents and applicants navigating the college admissions process, Li has stoked fears that the deck is stacked against even the most able students.

Li was, by any measure, a superstar college applicant: a perfect SAT score, near-perfect scores on the SAT IIs, a ranking in the top 1 percent of his class, and plenty of extracurricular activities. Yet Princeton turned him down. Although he got into Yale (and later transferred to Harvard), he suspected his exclusion from Princeton was due to discrimination against Asians. As a matter of principle, he decided to challenge it.

He filed a claim with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in August 2006 claiming that Princeton requires Asian Americans to meet higher standards for admission than whites, Hispanics, and blacks. Li cited a study by two Princeton researchers who determined that without racial preferences black admission rates would fall from 33.7 percent to 12.2 percent, and Hispanic acceptance rates would plunge from 26.8 percent to 12.9 percent, while Asians' rate of admission would go up from 17.6 percent to 23.4 percent. Asians would then make up over 30 percent, rather than less than 23.7 percent, of the students admitted.

In January 2008, over a year after receiving Li's claim of individual discrimination, OCR responded by announcing a schoolwide compliance review to determine whether Princeton's admission standards violated federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin. Princeton has denied that it discriminates.

Advocates on both sides of the racial preferences debate expect no quick resolution. OCR spokesman James Bradshaw says these investigations normally take six months. "Some take longer," however, he says, "and this is complex." He declined to say what information OCR had requested.

Whatever the merits of Li's claim, something is afoot at elite academic institutions that has adversely affected Asian admissions. On the basis of their academic performance and high school records, Asian Americans should be gaining admission in much higher numbers than they are. In his 2006 book The Price of Admission, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Daniel Golden called Asians "the new Jews, inheriting the mantle of the most disenfranchised group in college admissions." Golden observed, "Average SAT scores for Asian Americans admitted to the Ivy Leagues are substantially above those for any other group, including whites; frustrated Asian applicants refer to any score below the maximum as an 'Asian fail.'"

This was already the case back in 1988, when an investigation by OCR at Harvard found that Asian Americans were turned down in greater numbers despite higher test scores. The study also uncovered multiple notes by admissions officials in applicants' files that reflected stereo-typing of Asians. Still, OCR concluded that federal law had not been violated. A similar OCR investigation at UCLA in 1989, however, did find discrimination against Asians in the graduate math department. And in 1992, Boalt Law School of the University of California, Berkeley, was forced to drop a policy that restricted Asian admissions by comparing Asian applicants against each other instead of against the total pool of applicants.

The disparity between Asian test scores and GPAs and those of other groups has been much remarked upon. In a 1987 article in the Public Interest, John Bunzel and Jeffrey K.D. Au concluded that at Harvard in 1982, "Asian Americans had to score on average 112 points higher on the SAT than Caucasians who were admitted. The data reveal a similar pattern for Princeton in 1982 and 1983 and for classes entering Brown in 1979-1983." At Berkeley, a 1990 study showed that Asians and whites had a median GPA of 4.0, while blacks and Hispanics averaged slightly higher than 3.5.

Russel Nieli, a Princeton political science lecturer, contends that, although they deny it, elite schools strive mightily to reach a goal of 5 percent to 7 percent for blacks and a similar share for Hispanics in their admissions. In a June 30, 2008, article "Is there an Asian Ceiling?" he wrote: