Are Asian students disadvantaged in the college admissions process? A recent surge of articles in The New York Times and other publications has raised the question of the existence of “Asian quotas” at top universities.
Let’s look at the numbers. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, in the last 20 years, the number of college-age Asian Americans has grown from about 200,000 to over 400,000—nearly doubling compared to the relatively constant size of the 18 to 21 year-old non-Hispanic white population. During this same period, Asian enrollment at Ivy League institutions remained constant or even dropped, with numbers from 2011 putting Asians at 15 to 20 percent of these schools’ student populations. Meanwhile, Asian enrollment at the California Institute of Technology, which does not use affirmative action, has kept pace with broader demographic trends, with Asians comprising more than 40 percent of its class.
Given that Asian Americans constitute an increasing proportion of prestigious science competition champions, National Merit finalists and winners of other scholastic accolades, these figures seem to suggest, at least prima facie, that “Asian quotas” may very well exist at America’s top private universities—just as they did for Jews from the 1920s into the 1950s. But admissions officers deny discrimination, emphasizing that there is no formula for admission and that applicants are evaluated holistically—with test scores and ethnic background only two of many considerations.
Because admissions is highly complex and we do not know what actually takes place inside meetings, we do not make any prescriptive or normative claims. Looking at the available data, we find three possible explanations for the data: implicit or explicit racism among admission committees, inferiority among Asian Americans in “soft factors” or the aim of admitting a “diverse” class somehow disadvantaging Asian applicants.
Explicit racism among admissions officers is a disturbing possibility, although it most certainly happened in the past with Jewish students. Implicit racism, the kind latent within all of us, is more likely. While greater transparency about the racial composition of admission committees might help ease this worry, outright debunking is difficult.
The question of soft factors is highly subjective. Although test scores and academic honors may be the most direct objective measures of an applicant’s merit, there are few standard measurements for “non-cognitive” skills. Do charisma, leadership and passion outweigh a flawless academic record? How do you define such traits anyway? Could Asians possibly be so lacking in these areas as to explain the highly peculiar statistics? Or do “soft factors” mask anti-Asian racism?
“Diversity” considerations in admissions, which we support, are nevertheless difficult to define. Each applicant’s profile should be evaluated holistically, but to what precise end? Can and should admissions committees precisely define the kind of diversity they seek? What role does race, as opposed to say, socioeconomic status, play? What is the ideal “level” of diversity of an incoming class? An amorphous notion of “diversity,” like elusive “soft factors,” can potentially open the door to many prejudices if too broadly construed.
While we offer far more questions than answers, we do so in the hope that others can begin to discuss them in a principled and objective manner.