The Ivy League’s Asian problem

The Devil's Advocate


Last month, the gatekeepers to some of America’s top colleges gathered at a four-star hotel in Los Angeles to discuss what The Chronicle of Higher Education called “the next frontier” in college admissions: the evaluation of applicants’ “noncognitive” attributes.

Put less glamorously, the assembled admissions experts brainstormed ways for the admissions process to put more emphasis on the personal qualities of applicants — and, implicitly, to deemphasize academic measures of merit.

I’ve long been skeptical of the so-called “holistic review” process, in which college admissions offices attempt to pass judgment on the personalities of high school seniors. In a column last semester, I speculated that admissions offices insist that they conduct a mysterious holistic evaluation process to justify their value at a time when admissions decisions often appear to be arbitrary as well as to encourage more students to apply.

But what if there is a more unsettling explanation for admissions offices’ emphasis on applicants’ personalities? What if “holistic review” is just a politically correct term designed to give colleges license to achieve a desired ethnic makeup among admitted students — in particular, to cap Asian enrollment?

After all, the nebulous, subjective criteria that admissions officers claim to look for — “maturity,” “originality,” “responsibility” — are eerily similar to the traits that the Ivy League sought in the 1920s in order to cap Jewish enrollment: “character,” “vigor,” “manliness” and “leadership.”

As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in a review of UC Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel’s authoritative 2005 book on the history of American college admissions, administrators at elite colleges restricted Jewish enrollment in order to avoid alienating themselves from the elite Protestant establishment. This discrimination was framed in euphemistic language about the meaning of merit.

Harvard University’s provost wrote after World War II that Harvard should look for students of the “healthy extrovert kind” rather than “the sensitive, neurotic boy.” Yale University’s president in 1950 promised alumni that future students would be “well-rounded,” not “highly specialized intellectual(s).” Are Asians the new Jews of college admissions?

It’s common knowledge among those familiar with the admissions process that Asian students applying to Ivy League schools are at a disadvantage. Indeed, many Asian applicants try to conceal their ethnic backgrounds from admissions committees.

Late last year, in a 30,000 word article in The American Conservative, Roy Unz marshaled overwhelming evidence to validate Asian students’ concerns. A summary of his findings: First, the strength of Asian students’ academic performance is staggering, and has grown more impressive over the years. Though they make up only about 5 percent of the population, Unz estimates that Asian students represent about 28 percent of National Merit Semifinalists — the top 0.5 percent of scorers on the PSAT — far higher than their enrollment at Ivy League schools.

According to Unz, in the 1980s and 1990s, the percentage of Asian students at Ivy League colleges steadily increased. But in the last decade or so, even as the Asian population steadily increased (it roughly doubled since 1993), and Asian academic performance continued to improve, the proportion of Asians enrolled in Ivy League colleges reached a plateau or declined. More suspiciously, it has converged to roughly 16 percent at each Ivy League school for the past five years.

Meanwhile, according to Unz, at elite schools like UC Berkeley, UCLA and the California Institute of Technology — which use race-neutral admissions processes — the proportion of Asian students has risen to about 40 percent of the student body, tracking the increase in the population of college-age Asians. To Unz, this disparity is strong evidence of an unofficial quota system at elite private universities.

Ivy League administrators, of course, dismissed Unz’s claims. Harvard’s director of communications wrote in response that the ethnic composition of Harvard’s undergraduate student body is (surprise) simply a result of the admissions committee’s consideration of applicants’ “strength of character, their ability to overcome adversity and other personal qualities.”

In other words, admissions officers are suggesting that Asians’ superior academic performance is outweighed by their inferior personal qualities compared to other races. The parallels with the Jewish quota system are unmistakable.

In his review of Karabel’s book, Brooks wrote, “Karabel’s thorough and definitive look at elite college admissions is fascinating because he doesn’t just treat his narrative as a civil rights tale, as the story of anti-Semitic and racist institutions slowly giving way to the forces of justice and decency,” but rather as “‘a history of recurrent struggles over the meaning of merit.’” Similarly, I don’t think that it is productive to chalk up discrimination against Asians in the admissions process to simple xenophobia. It is better described as a complex struggle over the meaning of merit in our generation. But years from now, I don’t think we will look back fondly at this episode in the history of elite admissions.

Though I’m skeptical of affirmative action as it is currently practiced, I am sympathetic to some of the arguments for race-conscious admission policies. In particular, I think there may be something to the idea that it would be stabilizing to have an elite that looks like the rest of the country. Still, Ivy League colleges’ current mechanism for using racial preferences is infuriating. At the very least, admissions offices should admit that they disadvantage members of some races and favor members of other races. They shouldn’t couch this discrimination in feel-good language about desirable personality traits — traits that, apparently, Asian students just don’t have.

Jason Willick is the assistant opinion page editor. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter: @jawillick.

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  • James

    No matter what they do, Ivy League schools will always have a surplus of
    academically impressive applicants. The recognition and prestige from
    these schools means that they will never want for applicants. So, with
    that in mind, how do they determine who gets in? The best and the
    brightest? They would still have thousands too many. By racial
    breakdown? One group or another will always wind up with the short end
    of the stick. By holistic assessment? You wind up with articles like
    this, and in fairness, it is a nebulous concept for a process so heavily
    rooted in statistics. Truthfully, we don’t have the answer. The
    admissions boards clearly don’t, and I doubt the issue will be resolved
    in the comments section of a website. But in fifty years, I will be very
    interested to see how the criteria have changed and whether they
    reflect the demographics of the time.

  • sony2005

    It has nothing to do with affirmative action. They are not placing quotas on Asians to increase other minorities. You are not competing with minorities! You are competing with white students. Asians out score them too. Colleges don’t want their campuses to have a low percentage of whites when this country was founded by Europeans. And it is true that is not just about grades and sat scores. There are many other factors and a big one is creativity (and I don’t mean playing an instrument, I mean writing the song). That has to be important or the country will suffer and there is no reliable way to measure it. Fair or not many see Asians as hard working and intelligent but not particularly creative.

  • Uatu The Watcher

    I would suggest that asian-americans, even out of state ones, vote with their dollars and apply to UC schools where you are judged on your merits much more than at private schools.

  • millermp1

    At the same time, the Jews have proven to be no slouches, having gone from 20% of Nobel prizes (under quotas) to 30% (and rising) without quotas.

    There’s Diversity(tm) and diversity. The former is politically-sanitized fiction, the latter reality.

    What are these admissions committees actually achieving other than expediting their institutions’ irrelevance?

    Things are just as they should be.

  • millermp1

    Is it surprising? Consider that many of these folks align themselves with the social “sciences”, where reproducibilty and falsifiability are optional and facts are obstacles to be overcome. No wonder these fields reap their well-deserved enmity and scorn.

  • wolfgroupasia

    Jason, I would use great care in quoting anything Ron Unz wrote, and in particular his item on admissions to which you refer. You may wish to read this,, which offers a convincing case that if Unz is not a card-carrying anti-Semite, he is certainly a fellow traveler, and his article on admissions must be read as such. It is worth noting that he was dumped from The American Conservative some six months later.

  • Astriaicow

    Yes, we totally want racially equal schools and YET at the same time also educated thoroughly regarding how “race does not exist.”
    Just like the during communist dictatorship where they want to make everybody equal and Yet at the same time make the government a dictatorship
    And btw, your comment might have been written by a German grouser during the 1930s who wrote that yes the Jews have to be capped because look at how much they’ve dominated the academic field and only help each other and so forth. Yeah maybe it’s not a bad idea to kick them out.

  • chinagirl1996

    I am adopted from China, and I find this totally ridiculous. Someone posted a comment saying that colleges need to have around equal percentages of each race… Is American society to the point that we have to be that politically correct? This is not Upward sports where everyone who participates gets a medal and first place. If you have the grades, intelligence, and other qualifications of merit to go to one of these schools – which I have heard from its graduates are overrated anyway – you should be admitted regardless of race. One prospective student should be compared with ALL other prospective students. You could be black, white, Hispanic, Asian, a purple people eater… It shouldn’t matter. If you have what it takes, the supposedly “holistic approach”-endorsing admissions board should offer you a place in the school. If not, then that’s that.
    And another thing – I have intelligence. I am not a genius, but I do have a 4.78 or so GPA. However, I also believe in having a strong character and being well-rounded without overextending yourself. Thus, I am not a “stereotypical Asian” in that I think that I have to make straight A+’s, be a musical prodigy, and occupy the number one spot on math team in addition to excelling in other extracurricular fields or I’m a failure. It annoys me that so many people think that all or most Asians are like that. People are individuals. Furthermore, I am adopted as I said before, so why should I even be lumped in with the larger group of Asian Americans just because I am of Chinese ethnicity? I’m proud of my heritage, but culturally I’m about as white as they come, and I find this whole controversy racist and pointless. Why does it matter if there are more Asians at an Ivy League school? Whoop de doo.

    • KatRob

      It matters because this country was founded and intended to be the new and/or second home for Europeans so it goes without saying that White Americans should be dominant in all spheres. If you cannot prove European descent than you are just a visitor here. The Founding Fathers never intended it to become the Crap Stew it is today with over 200 cultures.

      • Larry

        “this country was founded and intended to be the new and/or second home for Europeans”

        This is completely false. How can Americans believe this even after the years of US history they’re required to take in school?

      • newyork1974

        Well, that’s certainly a remarkable opinion. I seem to recall that those Europeans (1) forcibly took the land from the indigenous population, many of whom survive despite the Europeans’ “Indian Wars;” (2) that those same Europeans forcibly incorporated Africans into the country as slaves; (3) that those same Europeans forcibly incorporated the Spanish-speaking population of what was then almost half of Mexico and is now the U.S. Southwest, stealing their land and reducing them to third class citizenship, if that; and (4) that those same Europeans forcibly incorporated Puerto Rico as a colony, again denying them basic rights, forbidding them even to fly their flag, which is one of the reasons they fly it so actively today, having finally won the right to do so.

        So, they are visitors, are they? Actually, I also seem to recall that “the rest of you are just visitors” line is from the Matt Damon film The Good Shepherd. We were all supposed to laugh, incredulously, I think. At least the audience did when I saw it. Was your comment supposed to be a joke too?

        • KatRob

          It doesn’t matter how the land was acquired and you’re dancing all around it. However the land was acquired it was intended to be a land of Europeans. Personally I wish Europeans would have stayed in Europe and never even came here. Having said that, I can imagine what this land would look like today left in the hand of indians and mexicans.

          • Richard Chen

            right… like genocide of the Indians don’t matter at all. You realize that had Europeans not have come to America, then the cities in Europe would be so filthy and overpopulated, poor, starving, basically a third world continent. The Europeans are only as rich as they are now by taking resources (including people) from America and Africa. Also, calling Asians visitors is invalid because you are a visitor yourself.

          • KatRob

            If this land wasn’t stolen, taken or however you want to term it, do you think it would be a modern civilization today if the Indians still had it? Not to put Indians down, but building civilizations wasn’t/isn’t their forte. And the Indians enjoy a pretty sweet deal today, they pay no taxes, get to run casinos and sell cigarettes for huge profits, so the spoilers have tried to make it up to them. Europe would be filthy and overpopulated, is that because we Europeans have too many children or would it be overpopulated by Africans and Asians who don’t know when to close their legs????? Maybe it would be overrun with all those female children that China doesn’t give any value to..

  • hernandayoleary2

    The article missed the reality that Asian spots are not being given away to other minorities, it is being given away to underqualified white people

    • newyork1974

      Namely, children of wealthy alumni, as well as others with no family connection to the university but known to represent “future endowment enhancement potential.” In other words, trust fund baby millionaires. They are the real affirmative action recipients, far more than racial or ethnic minorities.

      • millermp1

        “They are the real affirmative action recipients, far more than racial or ethnic minorities.”

        No, because their parents (alumnae) open their wallets in the form of donations and endowments. In other words, they at least pay for the privilege.

        • newyork1974

          So it’s ok because they’re rich and get a tax write-off to donate to a university, thereby ensuring that their academically completely unqualified son or daughter gets to go to that school? If you’ve ever been to one of those schools, and had to put up with the super-high-decibel beer blasts at the very wealthy fraternity across the street, especially the end-of-year beer blast when they had a bonfire in the yard and burned all their books and lecture notes, you know that, yup, they sure pay for the privilege, at least they paid for the beer. The donations to the university being a tax write-off, it was really the taxpaying public that paid. (This happened at Cornell, but I guarantee the same thing happened at every other Ivy and Ivy-peer school.)

    • millermp1

      Really? Asians need to score 100+ points over whites, 200+ points over hispancs, and 400+ points over blacks. How you allocate the “give away” to just legacy seats is interesting. Pray tell how you arrive at that conclusion.

      • hernan cortez

        Which simply proves whites are serial racist and serial discriminators.
        The majority of non-merit based applicants are children of alumni from schools that had white only policies, this is followed by donors, then children of employees. Even at the elite schools, blacks rarely top more than 10-15% or so. About their general representation in society. In reality only 40% of most ivy league schools are opened to merit based applications, and that is counting affirmative action candidates.

        The other thing to note is many asian students are not well rounded, so likely their high scores are needed to make up for their lack of social skills. It is a stereotype many white people hold of asians and to some extent is true. I can see why a school like Harvard would prefer to take a lower scoring applicant like JFK, or GWB or MLK, than an anti-social asian student who doesn’t join the community and only wants to hang out with asians like himself and lacks social skills. I went to an elite school, and students like that do not help the school, they hurt it. They preform poorly in interview situations and business in general. Once you become a ceo, guess what, it is all about relationships.

        Donald trump is a big time business failure from the economic perspective. Four times bankrupt since 1992. Yet people still give him billions to build projects because of his social skills, he knows virtually everyone in Hollywood and has great relations on bay street. The anti-social asian will not raise $1 billion because he will not come out from behind his desk.

        • Richard Chen

          have you thought about the fact that the Asian won’t go bankrupt in the first place unlike his white peers…

          • hernan cortez

            He won’t go bankrupt, but he won’t make it to the top either, the ivy league schools aren’t interested in training the asian middle manager of the future who is going to work several levels down for donald trump or some other guy. They want the guy who is going to die with the billion dollar fortune and donate it all to his alumni, that is why they have giant endowments.

  • Dhuno

    For a low grade school its fine but have you looked at the states for Ivy-league schools? Schools like Harvard and Columbia University only accept 4% Asians yet 30% black females alone. Complete bullshit.

    • janet

      Interestingly, success is not based on test scores. It’s based on grit. So, depending on how the students are being measured, you just never know. I am NOT saying that Asians do not have grit, just to make that clear. I am saying that testing alone is not a reliable indicator of how someone does in the long run. I am one of the more successful people I know, I was raised amongst many bright upper income people and I came from no where with no family support but what I did have was determination and when I look at my school reunion information, I am right at the tippie top.

      • bob siano

        Yeah, but who are the admissions officers to determine this grit? Most of them get paid akin to McDonalds workers- should they really be determining the next generation of intellectuals? I feel if professors choose the students, there would be a lot more asians and jews.

  • Dhuno

    Iniquitous is what this is. Equality lies no more and now the fate of hard working students is no longer in their hands but in the hands of foolish officials. In no manner is it fair that Asian students be put at a lower acceptance rate because of their personality traits and clearly this is debasing to the group as a whole. You cannot look at a stone and say it is a pillow, judgment resides differently for each individual rather than by what these people do. Quite frankly, what is happening here is unjust and obviously creations of new stereotypes. “Equality can never be found among humans”-Euripides.