White Students’ Unfair Advantage in Admissions
White Students’ Unfair Advantage in Admissions
As a Chinese-American alumnus who interviews applicants to Yale, I’m often asked one question by Asian-American students and parents: “Will being Asian hurt my chances?”
I deflect these queries, since I’m just a volunteer, not a member of the admissions committee. But I understand their concern.
A 2009 Princeton study showed Asian-Americans had to score 140 points higher on their SATs than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics and 450 points higher than blacks to have the same chance of admission to leading universities. A lawsuit filed in 2014 accused Harvard of having a cap on the number of Asian students — the percentage of Asians in Harvard’s student body had remained about 16 percent to 19 percent for two decades even though the Asian-American percentage of the population had more than doubled. In 2016, the Asian American Coalition for Education filed a complaint with the Department of Education against Yale, where the Asian percentage had remained 13 percent to 16 percent for 20 years, as well as Brown and Dartmouth, urging investigation of their admissions practices for similar reasons.
There’s ample evidence that Asian-Americans are at a disadvantage in college admissions. This issue has divided Asians and others who debate the relative benefits of diversity versus meritocracy in our society.
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I’ve often heard Asian-Americans express resentment toward blacks and Latinos for benefiting from affirmative action. As a Yale senior, I remember feeling disillusioned myself when an upper-middle-class black classmate with significantly less academic achievement than I was admitted to a top medical school that had rejected me.
But if Asians are being held back, it’s not so much because of affirmative action but because of preference for whites. The 450-point advantage that the Princeton study demonstrated blacks have over Asians draws the most attention. But the number that is most revealing is the 140-point advantage for whites over Asians.
To explain that disparity some might cite the myth that while Asian students have high test scores, they lack the well-rounded extracurricular interests and activities that colleges prize. But the study isolated race as a factor by controlling for variables like academic performance, legacy status, social class, type of high school (public or private) and participation in athletics. So that 140-point gap is between a white student and an Asian student who differ by little more than race.
Still, I’ve always supported affirmative action, though I’d much prefer that it was based on socio-economic disadvantage rather than race alone. All students benefit from having a racially diverse class. I would not have preferred to go to a Yale that was predominantly Asian. Colleges should grant an advantage to blacks and Hispanics because they continue to face barriers to equal access and opportunity.
The same is not true for whites, so there is no reason they should have preference over Asians in college admissions. It would be ludicrous to state that whites have been disadvantaged in comparison to Asian-Americans. The opposite could be argued, with xenophobic persecution during “yellow peril” scares, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as prime examples.
Often-cited examples of race-blind meritocracy are New York City’s elite public schools, such as Stuyvesant High School, for which admission is based solely on a standardized test. Stuyvesant is about 74 percent Asian, 18 percent white, 3 percent Hispanic, 1 percent black, with 4 percent multiracial or other. In California, where race-based affirmative action was eliminated in 1996, admission at the University of California at Berkeley is 42 percent Asian.
I do not like this degree of racial imbalance. But for too long, many elite colleges have done too much to orchestrate the racial composition of their classes. It seems obvious that continuing to hold Asian percentages at near-constant levels required excessive tipping of the scales to the detriment of Asians — and America’s long-cherished traditions of fairness and equal opportunity.
These colleges’ intentions may be good. Preserving a white majority is unlikely to be an overt goal. But whatever the reason for this frozen racial composition, it should be questioned.
A school like Harvard can ensure racial diversity by employing affirmative action to increase black and Hispanic enrollment, or at least keep them stable, but should maintain a level playing field for ethnicities that are not underrepresented — whites and Asians. (And I must acknowledge that there may be signs that this is beginning to happen: the recently admitted Harvard class of 2020 is 22 percent Asian, a slight increase.)