Sunday, January 07, 2007

Asians at Berkeley

The Sunday Times had an interesting long article in on diversity at Berkeley. Asians comprise 12% of California's population, but now make up almost 50% of the student body at Berkeley and several other UC campuses. Nationally, they are 5% of the population, but make up 10-30% of student bodies at elite private universities (Caltech has the highest percentage at 33%, whereas Princeton has one of the lowest at 13%).

I like the use of language in the article - they refer to UC admissions in the wake of Prop 209 (which removed race-based preferences) as a strict meritocracy, as opposed to what is practiced at most other public and private colleges. In fact the lead-in to the article on the web site says:

With a mandate that says merit trumps all, Berkeley finds itself looking across the Pacific for its identity. Is this the new face of higher education?

The usual diversity double-speak refuses to acknowledge that race-based preferences are not meritocratic.

Our heroes Jian Li (Yale student suing Princeton over anti-Asian admissions policies) and Daniel Golden (WSJ writer whose recent book The Price of Admission exposes the ugly side of elite admissions) both appear in the article. The Princeton spokesperson quoted in the article provides an excellent example of politically correct obfuscation. How is awarding preference to certain ethnic groups not discriminatory towards other non-preferred groups, given that the number of students admitted each year is fixed? Innumeracy strikes again!

For earlier related discussion, see here. For the Princeton study that showed statistically how affirmative action hurts Asians (being Asian is equivalent to a 50 point penalty on the SAT), see here.

NYTimes: Little Asia on the Hill

...Spend a few days at Berkeley, on the classically manicured slope overlooking San Francisco Bay and the distant Pacific, and soon enough the sound of foreign languages becomes less distinct. This is a global campus in a global age. And more than any time in its history, it looks toward the setting sun for its identity.

The revolution at Berkeley is a quiet one, a slow turning of the forces of immigration and demographics. What is troubling to some is that the big public school on the hill certainly does not look like the ethnic face of California, which is 12 percent Asian, more than twice the national average. But it is the new face of the state’s vaunted public university system. Asians make up the largest single ethnic group, 37 percent, at its nine undergraduate campuses.

...But 10 years after California passed Proposition 209, voting to eliminate racial preferences in the public sector, university administrators find such balance harder to attain. At the same time, affirmative action is being challenged on a number of new fronts, in court and at state ballot boxes. And elite colleges have recently come under attack for practicing it — specifically, for bypassing highly credentialed Asian applicants in favor of students of color with less stellar test scores and grades.

...This is in part because getting into Berkeley — U.S. News & World Report’s top-ranked public university — has never been more daunting. There were 41,750 applicants for this year’s freshman class of 4,157. Nearly half had a weighted grade point average of 4.0 or better (weighted for advanced courses). There is even grumbling from “the old Blues” — older alumni named for the school color — “who complain because their kids can’t get in,” says Gregg Thomson, director of the Office of Student Research.

...Asians have become the “new Jews,” in the phrase of Daniel Golden, whose recent book, “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” is a polemic against university admissions policies. Mr. Golden, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, is referring to evidence that, in the first half of the 20th century, Ivy League schools limited the number of Jewish students despite their outstanding academic records to maintain the primacy of upper-class Protestants. Today, he writes, “Asian-Americans are the odd group out, lacking racial preferences enjoyed by other minorities and the advantages of wealth and lineage mostly accrued by upper-class whites. Asians are typecast in college admissions offices as quasi-robots programmed by their parents to ace math and science.”

...To force the issue on a legal level, a freshman at Yale filed a complaint in the fall with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, contending he was denied admission to Princeton because he is Asian. The student, Jian Li, the son of Chinese immigrants in Livingston, N.J., had a perfect SAT score and near-perfect grades, including numerous Advanced Placement courses.

“This is just a very, very egregious system,” Mr. Li told me. “Asians are held to different standards simply because of their race.”

To back his claim, he cites a 2005 study by Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung, both of Princeton, which concludes that if elite universities were to disregard race, Asians would fill nearly four of five spots that now go to blacks or Hispanics. Affirmative action has a neutral effect on the number of whites admitted, Mr. Li is arguing, but it raises the bar for Asians. The way Princeton selects its entering class, Mr. Li wrote in his complaint, “seems to be a calculated move by a historically white institution to protect its racial identity while at the same time maintaining a facade of progressivism.”

...Admissions officials have long denied that they apply quotas. Nonetheless, race is important “to ensure a diverse student body,” says Cass Cliatt, a Princeton spokeswoman. But, she adds, “Looking at the merits of race is not the same as the opposite” — discrimination.

Elite colleges like Princeton review the “total package,” in her words, looking at special talents, extracurricular interests and socioeconomics — factors like whether the applicant is the first in the family to go to college or was raised by a single mother. “There’s no set formula or standard for how we evaluate students,” she says.

...Historically, Asians have faced discrimination, with exclusion laws in the 1800s that kept them from voting, owning property or legally immigrating. Many were run out of West Coast towns by mobs. But by the 1970s and ’80s, with a change in immigration laws, a surge in Asian arrivals began to change the complexion of California, and it was soon reflected in an overrepresentation at its top universities.

In the late 1980s, administrators appeared to be limiting Asian-American admissions, prompting a federal investigation. The result was an apology by the chancellor at the time, and a vow that there would be no cap on Asian enrollment.

...One leading critic of bringing affirmative action back to Berkeley is David A. Hollinger, chairman of its history department and author of “Post-Ethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism.” He supported racial preferences before Proposition 209, but is no longer so sure. “You could argue that the campus is more diverse now,” because Asians comprise so many different cultures, says Dr. Hollinger. A little more than half of Asian freshmen at Berkeley are Chinese, the largest group, followed by Koreans, East-Indian/Pakistani, Filipino and Japanese.

He believes that Latinos are underrepresented because many come from poor agrarian families with little access to the good schools that could prepare them for the rigors of Berkeley. He points out that, on the other hand, many of the Korean students on campus are sons and daughters of parents with college degrees. In any event, he says, it is not the university’s job to fix the problems that California’s public schools produce.


Anonymous said...

I didn't finish reading the article, but I remember thinking that I would probably be reading about it here ;-).

I don't understand why is it that admission officials need applicants to declare their ethnic background and even know their names. It seems that the way to go would simply to be blind to race and base everything on merit.

However, something needs be done to fix the correlations between low income and academic success -- which would probably affect many latinos. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this being the job of the admission's committee or not.

Steve Hsu said...


I would vote for (and pay my share of the taxes for) a law that required Federal funding to raise the quality of all public K-12 schools to the same level. But it's not the job of universities to fix the K-12 problems in society. In fact, I doubt the problems arising from poor K-12 education *can* be fixed by simply admitting under-prepared students to elite universities.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Hsu,


I was thinking mostly about universities without the 'elite' part in them. I wouldn't argue that places like your alma matter need to address the social problems of k-12 education. However, I think that until reforms to K-12 education quality like the one you suggest come about and have an effect admissions committees at state schools have some responsibility in trying to give kids from underprivileged backgrounds a chance.

Steve Hsu said...


I agree, what you suggest makes more sense on the not-so-elite campuses. But I think many of these things are relatively ineffective feel-good measures that are cheaper to implement than fixing our K-12 system.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Hsu,

Another 'I agree' is in order...

Definitely it would make much more sense to attempt to fix the k-12 system than to artificially admit kids who may or may not deserve it into college. However, the fixing of the k-12 does not seem to be in our near future as the US govt seems to have other priorities.

I hope this is not too personal a question, feel free to leave it unanswered, but what do you foresee in terms of k-12 education for your kids? If I'm not mistaken they haven't started school yet, right?

Anonymous said...

We're just going to have to divvy these up in the future beforehand... I call 'The Incredibles' sometime tomorrow, though. However I still have some very interesting thoughts about this article which are going to require some polling of the significant asian community here at Exeter (and some talking to people I know are applying to Berkeley!).

Steve Hsu said...


I was almost going to do the Incredibles, but as it is I did this one while on a plane. Just too much to do!

I look forward to your post. I'm curious what kids today think of all this :-)

Best of luck with your applications...

Steve Hsu said...

Rigo: one of the benefits of Eugene is the strong school system here. However, there is always the temptation to go the private school route. I have friends in NYC and it is amazing what kind of posh, elite education their kids have access to.

I hope college admissions has eased up in competitiveness when my kids are applying! The demographic trend (big bulge of HS/college age students right now) will have abated, hopefully!

Anonymous said...

Where does potential come into this? It's easy to pump information into kids that are receptive to it but there are plenty of late developers.

I'm not sure how the American system works. Can it distinguish between applicants that perform exceptionally in science+maths and those that are good across a broad range of subjects (and have a wider but less deep skill set).

Steve Hsu said...

The US system is very forgiving. If you don't have a good HS record, you can attend a junior college, transfer to, e.g., Berkeley or more typical state university, then get into a top grad school. You aren't doomed by not geting into Oxbridge from the beginning.

The admissions process here is very fine-grained - you have tests for writing, verbal and quant aptitude, plus "achievement" or AP exams covering subject matter. Thus it is easy to tell the future poet or historian from math genius. Also, letters from your HS teachers and coaches can play a big role.

Most people do not realize that the vast majority of US colleges and universities are non-selective -- they admit well over 50% (some, nearly 100%) of applicants. In almost every state there is a public research university which is at international-level in terms of research and teaching, but to which a student can be admitted simply by being a decent HS student. Even if you are a terrible HS student, one or two years at a junior college with good grades will let you transfer to a good public university.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how well it would work today, but thirty years ago I did just that - I got out of high school with a C+ average, went to junior college for two years, and transferred to Berkeley. Later I went to Harvard for a Master's. So, in my experience, the system was extremely forgiving, and it's been wonderful for me.

Anonymous said...

Pressures--and numbers--have increased a lot since then, and there is rather a lot less breathing space, I think. The competition for transfer slots at many places is very intense, but it's still possible and commonly done. I suppose I'm still tracked into the 'hyper elite' admissions mindset, since they're the ones getting all the media coverage half the time.

And thanks for the luck, but no more applications for me. I applied early to, and was accepted at, Yale. And I'll be attending there next year. :)

Steve Hsu said...

Sam, congrats! I used to be a professor at Yale :-)

In the previous comment I was referring to not-so-elite state universities. Although not as prestigious as Yale, they are still offer amazing educational and research opportunities to students.

Anonymous said...

People are used to thinking of racial preferences in the standard black/white context, where the preference is used to increase the numbers of minority students.

But even though in "principle" this seems the same as preferences that limit the numbers of a minority group that would otherwise be overrepresented, there is a large practical difference.

If one applies a preference to increase the number of minority students from, say, 2% of the student body to 10% at the cost of the majority going from 98% to 90%, this has a huge positive effect on the minority students -- 5 times as many are admitted, but a relatively small negative effect on the majority -- their admission rate (whatever it is) will be reduced by less than 10%. If we consider that for the relatively small number of majority students who are "on the bubble", there will likely be many others with similar qualifications who will not be accepted with or without preferences, it's easy for schools to justify the negative effect on the majority. The only students easily identifiable as being affected are those who were admitted under the preference.

Now consider instead the effect of a preference that significantly cuts the number of minority students -- in the context we are talking about, going from 30% with no preferences to 15% or even 10% with preferences wouldn't be that surprising. Now its the positive effect on the majority which is, though significant, relatively small, and the negative effect which is huge. The minority students who almost got in would not be indistinguishable from those who would not have gotten in -- they would instead be clearly identifiable as having superior qualifications to large number or even a majority of students at the school.

Its certainly true that "in principle", assuming a fixed number of admissions, there will be as many students hurt as helped by either of these preferences. In practice, though, the preferences against Asians (or Jews, in an earlier era) create an easily identifiable set of injured parties, and that fact alone will, I think, cause admissions officers to remove these policies over time.

Anonymous said...

Endless further discussion here:

JadeLuckClub said...

Why You Shouldn't Identify as Asian When Applying to College or Grad School...

JadeLuckClub said...

Why You Shouldn't Identify as Asian When You Apply to College or Grad School:

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