Sunday, November 12, 2006

The ugly truth

Daniel Golden reports on discrimination against Asian-Americans in admissions to elite universities. I discussed his recent book here, and the Princeton study which concluded that Asian applicants faced discrimination equivalent to (on average) 50 points on the SAT here. Another article worth reading (thanks to Dave S. for the link) from Inside Higher Ed covers a panel called “Too Asian?” at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Particularly telling are the comments of a former Stanford admissions officer about an internal study which found evidence of higher admission rates for white applicants over Asians of similar academic and leadership qualifications (all applicants in the study were "unhooked" - meaning not in any favored categories such as legacies or athletes). Ugly, ugly, ugly.

The mechanism by which this discrimination operates is not overt. Admissions officers at elite universities are generally progressive and pro-diversity. They seek an ideal entering class with just the right balance of ethnic groups, and sprinklings of athletes, violinists, chess champions, junior entrepreneurs, etc. But this goal (especially the ethnic diversity part) conflicts with trying to get the intellectually strongest kids on campus, regardless of race. Of elite schools, only Caltech places the intellectual strength of the applicant above all else. Like it or not, admissions officers at elite schools are awarding preference to candidates based on their diversity goals. Too many high scoring Asians means not enough students from other groups, leading to a higher bar for Asian applicants.

Are individual admissions staffers aware of this consequence? Perhaps some are, but probably others prefer not to think about it. Those that do understand the consequences must be willing to sacrifice the lifelong goals and aspirations of Asian students like immigrant Jian Li, profiled in the article, on the altar of their diversity agenda.

If, for whatever reason, the distribution of bright, well-prepared students is very different in different ethnic groups, only discrimination against certain groups (Jews in the past, and Asians today) can keep their representation on campuses down. Cheers to immigrant kid Jian Li for challenging the discriminatory status quo, and cheers to Dan Golden for reporting diligently on this issue. See here for an Exeter senior's take on the college admissions process today.
WSJ: Though Asian-Americans constitute only about 4.5% of the U.S. population, they typically account for anywhere from 10% to 30% of students at many of the nation's elite colleges.

Even so, based on their outstanding grades and test scores, Asian-Americans increasingly say their enrollment should be much higher -- a contention backed by a growing body of evidence.

Whether elite colleges give Asian-American students a fair shake is becoming a big concern in college-admissions offices. Federal civil-rights officials are investigating charges by a top Chinese-American student that he was rejected by Princeton University last spring because of his race and national origin.

Meanwhile, voter attacks on admissions preferences for other minority groups -- as well as research indicating colleges give less weight to high test scores of Asian-American applicants -- may push schools to boost Asian enrollment. Tuesday, Michigan voters approved a ballot measure striking down admissions preferences for African-Americans and Hispanics. The move is expected to benefit Asian applicants to state universities there -- as similar initiatives have done in California and Washington.

If the same measure is passed in coming years in Illinois, Missouri and Oregon -- where opponents of such preferences say they plan to introduce it -- Asian-American enrollment likely would climb at selective public universities in those states as well.

During the Michigan campaign, a group that opposes affirmative action released a study bolstering claims that Asian students are held to a higher standard. The study, by the Center for Equal Opportunity, in Virginia, found that Asian applicants admitted to the University of Michigan in 2005 had a median SAT score of 1400 on the 400-1600 scale then in use. That was 50 points higher than the median score of white students who were accepted, 140 points higher than that of Hispanics and 240 points higher than that of blacks.

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, said universities are "legally vulnerable" to challenges from rejected Asian-American applicants.

Princeton, where Asian-Americans constitute about 13% of the student body, faces such a challenge. A spokesman for the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights said it is investigating a complaint filed by Jian Li, now a 17-year-old freshman at Yale University. Despite racking up the maximum 2400 score on the SAT and 2390 -- 10 points below the ceiling -- on SAT2 subject tests in physics, chemistry and calculus, Mr. Li was spurned by three Ivy League universities, Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Office for Civil Rights initially rejected Mr. Li's complaint due to "insufficient" evidence. Mr. Li appealed, citing a white high-school classmate admitted to Princeton despite lower test scores and grades. The office notified him late last month that it would look into the case.

His complaint seeks to suspend federal financial assistance to Princeton until the university "discontinues discrimination against Asian-Americans in all forms by eliminating race preferences, legacy preferences, and athlete preferences." Legacy preference is the edge most elite colleges, including Princeton, give to alumni children. The Office for Civil Rights has the power to terminate such financial aid but usually works with colleges to resolve cases rather than taking enforcement action.

Mr. Li, who emigrated to the U.S. from China as a 4-year-old and graduated from a public high school in Livingston, N.J., said he hopes his action will set a precedent for other Asian-American students. He wants to "send a message to the admissions committee to be more cognizant of possible bias, and that the way they're conducting admissions is not really equitable," he said.

Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said the university is aware of the complaint and will provide the Office for Civil Rights with information it has requested. Princeton has said in the past that it considers applicants as individuals and doesn't discriminate against Asian-Americans.

When elite colleges began practicing affirmative action in the late 1960s and 1970s, they gave an admissions boost to Asian-American applicants as well as blacks and Hispanics. As the percentage of Asian-Americans in elite schools quickly overtook their slice of the U.S. population, many colleges stopped giving them preference -- and in some cases may have leaned the other way.

In 1990, a federal investigation concluded that Harvard University admitted Asian-American applicants at a lower rate than white students despite the Asians' slightly stronger test scores and grades. Federal investigators also found that Harvard admissions staff had stereotyped Asian-American candidates as quiet, shy and oriented toward math and science. The government didn't bring charges because it concluded it was Harvard's preferences for athletes and alumni children -- few of whom were Asian -- that accounted for the admissions gap.

The University of California came under similar scrutiny at about the same time. In 1989, as the federal government was investigating alleged Asian-American quotas at UC's Berkeley campus, Berkeley's chancellor apologized for a drop in Asian enrollment. The next year, federal investigators found that the mathematics department at UCLA had discriminated against Asian-American graduate school applicants. In 1992, Berkeley's law school agreed under federal pressure to drop a policy that limited Asian enrollment by comparing Asian applicants against each other rather than the entire applicant pool.

Asian-American enrollment at Berkeley has increased since California voters banned affirmative action in college admissions. Berkeley accepted 4,122 Asian-American applicants for this fall's freshman class -- nearly 42% of the total admitted. That is up from 2,925 in 1997, or 34.6%, the last year before the ban took effect. Similarly, Asian-American undergraduate enrollment at the University of Washington rose to 25.4% in 2004 from 22.1% in 1998, when voters in that state prohibited affirmative action in college admissions.

The University of Michigan may be poised for a similar leap in Asian-American enrollment, now that voters in that state have banned affirmative action. The Center for Equal Opportunity study found that, among applicants with a 1240 SAT score and 3.2 grade point average in 2005, the university admitted 10% of Asian-Americans, 14% of whites, 88% of Hispanics and 92% of blacks. Asian applicants to the university's medical school also faced a higher admissions bar than any other group.

Julie Peterson, spokeswoman for the University of Michigan, said the study was flawed because many applicants take the ACT test instead of the SAT, and standardized test scores are only one of various tools used to evaluate candidates. "I utterly reject the conclusion" that the university discriminates against Asian-Americans, she said. Asian-Americans constitute 12.6% of the university's undergraduates.

Jonathan Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, said most elite colleges' handling of Asian applicants has become fairer in recent years. Mr. Reider, a former Stanford admissions official, said Stanford staffers were dismayed 20 years ago when an internal study showed they were less likely to admit Asian applicants than comparable whites. As a result, he said, Stanford strived to eliminate unconscious bias and repeated the study every year until Asians no longer faced a disadvantage.

Last month, Mr. Reider participated in a panel discussion at a college-admissions conference. It was titled, "Too Asian?" and explored whether colleges treat Asian applicants differently.

Precise figures of Asian-American representation at the nation's top schools are hard to come by. Don Joe, an attorney and activist who runs Asian-American Politics, an Internet site that tracks enrollment, puts the average proportion of Asian-Americans at 25 top colleges at 15.9% in 2005, up from 10% in 1992.

Still, he said, he is hearing more complaints "from Asian-American parents about how their children have excellent grades and scores but are being rejected by the most selective colleges. It appears to be an open secret."

Mr. Li, who said he was in the top 1% of his high-school class and took five advanced placement courses in his senior year, left blank the questions on college applications about his ethnicity and place of birth. "It seemed very irrelevant to me, if not offensive," he said. Mr. Li, who has permanent resident status in the U.S., did note that his citizenship, first language and language spoken at home were Chinese.

Along with Yale, he won admission to the California Institute of Technology, Rutgers University and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He said four schools -- Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania -- placed him on their waiting lists before rejecting him. "I was very close to being accepted at these schools," he said. "I was thinking, had my ethnicity been different, it would have put me over the top. Even if race had just a marginal effect, it may have disadvantaged me."

He ultimately focused his complaint against Princeton after reading a 2004 study by three Princeton researchers concluding that an Asian-American applicant needed to score 50 points higher on the SAT than other applicants to have the same change of admission to an elite university.

"As an Asian-American and a native of China, my chances of admission were drastically reduced," Mr. Li claims in his complaint.


Anonymous said...

Oh no! I have been beat to the punch. The library closes early on Fridays so I never get to check the WSJ for college-related issues usually until sundays. As it stands I have this same article open up on my screen here and a response half-done in my editor.

Tsk tsk tsk for reprinting the whole article here... :p

My response to the article will be up late tonight or sometime tomorrow (suspense!).

Anonymous said...

First, a story: in the 80s, I was a member of First Parish Unitarian in Harvard Square, and one of the members was a gent in his late 70s who had worked in Harvard admissions as a young man. And he told me: we started requiring photographs. To screen against too many Jews. They would change their names from 'Cohen'. But we had a saying in the office: 'They can change the "Moses", but they can't change their noses'.

So what happened? Well, two things: one, Harvard found it could no longer afford to bar the gates as the 30s went on and Wellington Snapwell Sharpe III didn't have enough money, and, second, a whole lot of Very Smart People went to the City University of New York and went on to absolutely stellar careers which could have burnished the reputation of Harvard if it had let them in. Many of them became very rich, and weren't in the alumni group from which Harvard could try and harvest money.

It seems to me that there are two issues here - well, there are a LOT of issues here, but the two I want to tease out are - the education and the credentialling functions of the elite schools. They're both important. If you went to Yale, and Yale Law, my wife's law school will consider you for a junior lawyer spot. They don't ordinarily consider people who went to Arizona State. That's credentialling, and students and parents all think it is swell to be in the groups which have access to these swell jobs starting out. If Yale has done a good job, and you were smart and diligent in school, you are also good at the skills a lawyer will need, and you can make partner and go on to a mid-size mansion in Bethesda and a summer place. That's the education part. The ASU grad never gets to demonstrate quality in that context.

If the process of sorting kids coming in has been less merit-based, you will have more Yalies who can't make it and more ASU grads who go on to join scrappy second- and third-tier firms and clean the swells' clocks in court. So it damages the presumption of quality the Yalies now carry with them. But it takes a long time for this all to happen, and it's pretty unfair to the smart kid who is passed over for Yale in favor of a less bright or diligent kid of a favored minority. And elite education is a precious and expensive thing, if you misallocate it it's costly to the society.

Anonymous said...

Dave: that last part is all well and good, except... the ASU grad is destined to make just as much money as the Yale grad, assuming he or she is as good of a student. Hence the study showing that those who were accepted at the top elite schools (Yale, for instance) but chose to go elsewhere do just as well, as measured by income, as their counterparts who went for the prestige. (Slight exception for the very poor, who got a slight boost from the ivy)

The lesson? It's about the self-motivating ambitious types, not just where you put them.

Anonymous said...

<< Federal investigators also found that Harvard admissions staff had stereotyped Asian-American candidates as quiet, shy and oriented toward math and science. >>

So it's okay and valid to stereotype Asian-Americans as smarter than the rest of the population, but it's not okay to stereotype them in less desirable ways? If we posit that there is a difference in intelligence between ethnic groups, there is no reason to conclude that there aren't other differences too that might account for admission difference. You seem to think that elite universities should only screen for intelligence. Leadership is another quality I find equally desirable that bookworms often lack. Some, myself not included, would say the same about athleticism or musical ability.

Steve Hsu said...

To the last commenter: read the Inside Higher Ed article about the internal Stanford study. Whites with *comparable* academic and leadership qualifications were admitted at *significantly* higher rates than their Asian counterparts. We're talking about race here as the independent variable, pure and simple.

Any university is free to set their admission standards however they want. They can assign any weight they want to various qualities (grades, test scores, extra-curriculars, how much money your parents have), but if one of those qualities is race, and they are penalizing certain groups on the basis of race, then the Department of Justice should investigate and all Federal support for that institution should be terminated.

This is exactly what Li and Golden and the former Stanford admissions officer in the article are claiming, and to me it has been rather obvious for years.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous! I have ANOTHER Harvard story. Well, I spent eight years living in Cambridge, I ought to have Harvard stories.

So, this one is about Abbot Lawrence Lowell, the last president of Harvard to maintain a hard line against the Jews. And this was basically along the lines you posit - narrow-chested intellectuals, unhealthy predilections and interests, as opposed to our Bay State First Family scholar-athletes, leaders of men, etc etc.

And the joke is, what cities in Mass are named after this guy??

The answer: Lawrence, and Lowell, and ....

keep scrolling...

keep on scrolling...


(there is a variant of this joke in which the last community is Athol - take your pick)

Steve is saying, and my read of the original article, is that a Chess Club president violin-playing 3.8 student does better if white than asian, and is a lead-pipe cinch for admission if black. I don't think this is okay, and I think the fact that admissions people lie and obfuscate about this suggests that they don't, either.

Anonymous said...

There is much armwaving on this issue at the blog half sigma

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Steve.

Ugly, ugly, ugly. We need to be much disturbed and active in changing this.


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