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The Ivy League's Asian problem

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FEBRUARY 11, 2013

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.

FEBRUARY 11, 2013