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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Demography and destiny

From an article in The Times Higher Education (formerly Times Higher Education Supplement). The reporter was shocked at the clear cut statistics showing discrimination against Asians in elite higher education. He wondered how this could be the case in the 21st century and why the story wasn't covered more widely. In trying to get approval to do a bigger story he was told that since Dan Golden (Bloomberg) had written about it a couple of times there was no need to make a fuss about it.

... Yet statistics suggest that students from one of the most academically successful ethnic groups, East Asians, are being admitted to US universities at surprisingly low rates. Although they comprise less than 4 per cent of the US population as a whole, East Asians make up 24 per cent of students at elite universities. But they would probably comprise an even larger share if some were not being kept out by seemingly lopsided admissions requirements.

Universities deny that they have quotas to keep East Asian students out. Statistics show, however, that only one in 15 East Asian applicants is admitted to Ivy League universities, compared with one of every 10 applicants of other racial groups.

Thomas Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, calculated that East Asians needed perfect scores of 1,600 on the principal university entrance examination, the SAT Reasoning Test, to have the same chance of being accepted at a top private university as whites who scored 1,460 and blacks who scored 1,150. He found that whites were three times, blacks five times and Hispanics twice as likely to be accepted at a US university as East Asians. [Note: This should read: "Whites were three times as likely to get fat envelopes as Asians. Hispanics were twice as likely to win admission as whites. African-Americans were at least five times as likely to be accepted as whites." These probabilities are obtained after controlling for grades, test scores, athletic qualifications, and family history! See here.]

"It's both true that Asians are over-represented and that they're being discriminated against," Hsu says. "The [two] things can happen at the same time." University admissions, he adds, "should be a meritocracy. But people have other social goals in mind."

As in Texas, public university admissions policies in California have been affected by politics and court rulings. In 1996, California voters banned the use of affirmative-action policies by public agencies, including universities, and that ban was upheld by a court as recently as December. (Voters have adopted similar bans on racial preferences in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington State.) Without such racial filters, the percentage of East Asian students at the University of California at Irvine shot up to 61 per cent, Berkeley 42 per cent and University of California, Los Angeles 38 per cent, in a state where East Asians comprise just 13 per cent of the population.

This indicates that universities in other states are handicapping East Asian applicants, Hsu says.

"It's all hush-hush, but it's pretty clear from the data," he alleges. "[Elite] schools ... don't disclose they're doing it. They just all sort of magically end up with under 20 per cent Asian students."

Hsu says universities do this partly to ensure diversity that might be crowded out by large numbers of East Asians, and partly to avoid alienating their alumni.

"The motivation for, say, Harvard (whose undergraduate population is 16 per cent East Asian) wanting to cap its Asian admissions is that they may lose some alumni support. If they have some rich alumni whose kids might not want to work too hard (to compete with the East Asian students)."

The disparity has received as little attention in the US as the shift of whites to minority status among the undergraduate population at the University of Texas at Austin. But similar changes in Canada's higher education sector provoked controversy last autumn when the weekly news magazine Maclean's, in its annual university issue, asked whether Canadian universities were becoming, as a much-criticised headline put it, "Too Asian?"

With 85 per cent of East Asian parents of Toronto high school students saying they expect their children to go on to university, compared with 59 per cent of whites and 49 per cent of blacks, and Asian-Americans of East Asian origin who are unable to gain admission to US universities transferring their focus to Canadian institutions, the magazine reported that Canadian universities were becoming "so academically focused that some (non-Asian) students feel they can no longer compete or have fun".

Some white students quoted in the article said they would not choose the University of Toronto precisely because it has so many East Asian students. (A university spokeswoman denies there has been such a backlash.)

The debate has at its heart the received idea that East Asians work harder or are innately smarter than non-Asians - or, as Hsu puts it, "a pushy group of people making life too hard" - just as Jews were once portrayed.

But while "it's certainly a stereotype, it might have some statistical basis", Hsu says. "You're talking about a recent immigrant population. It probably was true that the average Jewish kid admitted to the Ivy League in the early 1900s worked harder than other kids."

Today, he adds, "it's a not-so-well-kept secret in the Asian community that you have to work that much harder when you're Asian."

Universities, however, are trying to focus on increasing the numbers of Hispanics and blacks, on the basis that these racial groups are the biggest source of future students. They help them to meet challenges on campus and also try to improve the preparation they receive in hard-pressed secondary schools. ...

Why you should be suspicious of what the elite schools are up to, despite official statements (from an earlier post):

OCR = Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which conducted an investigation of anti-Asian bias in Harvard admissions around 1990.

The Chosen, p.510: ... Asian Americans had the highest SATs of all [among groups admitted to Harvard]: 1450 out of a possible 1600. In 1991 the Asian-American/white admission ratio [ratio of percentages of applicants from each group admitted] stood at 84 percent -- a sharp downturn from 98 percent in 1990, when the scrutiny from OCR was at its peak. Though [this ratio] never dropped again to the 64 percent level of 1986, it never returned to its 1990 zenith. Despite Asian Americans' growing proportion of the national population, their enrollment also peaked in 1990 at 20 percent, where it more or less remained until 1994. ... by 2001 it had dropped below 15 percent.

So the "subjective but fair" measures used in admissions resulted in a record high admit rate for Asians during the year Harvard was under investigation by the federal government. But mysteriously the admit rate (relative to that of white applicants) went down significantly after the investigation ended, and the overall Asian enrollment has not increased despite the increasing US population fraction of Asians.

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