Political Animal


December 22, 2012 3:12 PM Discrimination against Asian American students in Ivy League admissions

By Kathleen Geier

The New York Times has been having an interesting debate about the issue of anti-Asian quotas in the Ivy League. There was this op-ed earlier in the week, as well as a series of essays arguing various sides of the question as part of the Times’ “Room for Debate” feature.

Participants mostly debated whether quotas limiting Asian students in the Ivies really exist. But of that there can be little doubt. While the Harvard guy in the “Room for Debate” forum predictably swears up and down that their admissions committee “does not use quotas of any kind,” that appears to be almost statistically impossible. In their contribution to the forum, John C. Brittain and Richard D. Kahlenberg point out that:

Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford find in their study of selective colleges that Asian-Americans must score 140 points higher on average than whites on the math and verbal portions of the SAT in order to have the same chances of admission.

Right-wing billionaire Ron Unz, in his contribution, notes that the percentage of Asian Americans enrolled at Harvard has surprisingly declined, from 20.6 in 1993 to about 16.5 throughout most of the last decade. This is in spite of the fact that the college age Asian American population has “roughly doubled” over this period. Unz also cites other evidence that indicates when admissions policies are race neutral, Asian Americans tend to be accepted in numbers that reflect the growth of the Asian American population.

Now, one thing that definitely needs to be said about the ant-Asian quota issue is that the politics of it is definitely very weird. Unz and a couple of the other participants who argue that there is an anti-Asian quota also tend to oppose race-based affirmative action altogether. They seem to view the Asian American quota controversy as a wedge issue that can help them dismantle the entire affirmative action system. They care about fairness for Asian Americans about as much as the wingnuts cared about freedom for women in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Khin Mai Aung, the director of the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, an Asian American rights group, refers to anti-Asian quotas as “imaginary.” Rather remarkably, she uses quotation marks when referring to anti-Asian bias — e.g., “‘discrimination’ against Asians.” Aung’s group does support race-based affirmative action and Aung points out, correctly, that some alleging anti-Asian quotas “have rarely shown their concern for Asian-Americans in other contexts.” That is undeniably true. Nevertheless, Aung does not deal at all with the seemingly strong statistical evidence of the quotas; she just waves her hands at it. It’s an extremely weak argument.

In this entire debate over admissions, the elephant in the room is class. Aung says that her group supports affirmative action for what are basically class-based reasons. Affirmative action policies help the more disadvantaged Asian Americans whose countries of origins were places like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and who may have come here as refugees.

Class also rears its ugly head in Brittain and Kahlenberg’s argument. They say that one big reason that Asian Americans are disadvantaged are legacy preferences. The alums of elite institutions tend to be overwhelmingly white, and of course their offspring are as well. Asian Americans and other nonwhite groups suffer from this. Here’s one stunning example they cite:

For the fall 2003 class, 91 percent of legacy applicants accepted by early decision at the University of Virginia were white, compared with just 1.6 percent who were Asian, according to journalist Daniel Golden.

Morally and politically, legacy preferences are totally unacceptable and should be completely eliminated. It’s difficult to see that happening, though, in institutions where alumni still have so much power, particularly through their donations. At the very least, the anti-Asian quotas — and yes, we all know the Ivies have them, even if they’re not calling them that — should be abolished. What the anti-Asian quotas amount to is affirmative action for white people and that, with its strong stench of white supremacy and entrenched privilege, is noxious.

Anti-Asian prejudice in our society has no doubt declined, but like other sorts of prejudice in our country, it has a long and ugly history. The Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration on the basis of race, and various miscegenation laws prevented Asians from marrying whites. And while clearly we’re past the worst of it, hostility to nonwhites and to immigrants is very alive in this country — witness the modern conservative movement.

Asian Americans tend to do pretty well economically, and they are not as vocal politically as Latinos or African Americans are. Maybe because of that, there has been surprisingly little discussion of discrimination against Asians in higher education. But its continuing existence is disturbing. It’s long past time elite colleges give up the ghost of white skin privilege and stop giving rich white kids special preferences over their smarter and more talented Asian counterparts. Not doing so is flat out racism, polite society style. Getting rid of the legacy preferences could open up more slots for class-based affirmative action, as well.

It’s hard to dream up an admissions system where elites wouldn’t find a way of gaming it somehow, but the legacy preferences are particularly offensive. They reek of the worst of decadent, aristocratic Europe, not the best of democratic America. A less corrupt system would be in society’s best interest.

UPDATE: The Monthly’s Daniel Luzer wrote about this issue recently, in this post.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Gandalf on December 22, 2012 6:11 PM:

    So the percentage of asian americans at Harvard is 16.5%
    It's hard to see some sort of quota when the percentage of asian americans in the U.S. is a good deal less then 10%.

  • David Martin on December 22, 2012 6:16 PM:

    I'm surprised that legacy admissions would be allowed at a state university.

    I realize that the University of Virginia has been sliding into quasi-private status for some time.

  • c u n d gulag on December 22, 2012 6:40 PM:

    Ah, yes, legacy.

    Where some 3rd or 4th generation, rich, inbred Yuppie dumb-feck, gets in, and some Asian kid who doubled that dumb-feck's SAT score, has to find another college to go to.

    Remind me again, about how the Founding Fathers in this country, didn't want an aristocracy to form here?

    America, 200+ years of our motto being, "If you're all White, you're all right!!!"

    No wonder they hate President Obama.

  • David on December 22, 2012 6:59 PM:

    Legacy admissions are an issue, but I think a larger problem is the lower admissions standards for athletes. It has never been clear to me why a student should have an easier time getting into Yale or Williams simply because he or she can play lacrosse or volleyball. Of course, this tends to keep out all those pesky first and second generation Asian kids who are too busy studying to play a sport. Parenthetically, this also tends to create a bias against students who are short, fat, unathletic, or simply don't like sports.

  • Mike Noordijk on December 22, 2012 8:05 PM:

    Becoming a division one level athlete involves an enormous commitment of time and energy, commitment that often isn't reflected in typical academic admissions measurements. I don't think it's quite as clear-cut as the "dumb jock" stereotype, especially in the two sports you mentioned. I'll assert that most division one athletes have put as much time in as scholarship music students.

    This isn't true for all athletes, there are obviously cases of clearly unqualified athletes getting accepted when they shouldn't be, but especially in non-revenue sports it's not out of the question that athletic acheivement has no place in admissions.

  • Andrew J. Lazarus on December 22, 2012 9:28 PM:

    Gandalf, if your argument had merit, then on the flip side we should conclude that the presence of African Americans in much smaller numbers than their proportion in the population is the result of discrimination. The relevant universe is college-age with strong academic records, and Asians are wildly over-represented in that cohort relative to their numbers.

  • r on December 22, 2012 9:29 PM:

    Legacy admission is evil.

    Full stop.

  • Walker on December 22, 2012 9:30 PM:

    Let me preface what I am about to say with the following: I am not in admissions, but have been part of the admissions process at my university.

    You cannot just pull up scores and say there is a bias. The problem is that there is a lot to university admissions that has nothing to do with scores. And yes, some of it may end up filtering out Asians, but it has nothing (intentionally) to do with race.

    Here are just two issues that you may not be aware of.

    First of all, university admissions are very biased against pre-meds. Way too many students are interested in this career path, and you cannot run a university if everyone is a pre-med. If there is any indication in a student application that a student is going to be pre-med, the acceptance bar becomes signficantly higher.

    Another issue is that scores/grades are used for an initial cut-off, but the admissions process focuses on other factors once the student makes it across the initial bar (because scores alone will not eliminate enough of the applicant pool). For example, one thing that application readers look for is "what has this student done using the resources they were given." Students that have high scores, but which have simply skated through the AP courses a top suburban high school, get lower priority than a student from a rural school that had to pursue extra curricular education options. Why? Because it turns out that this is often a better predictor of college success than grades.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on December 22, 2012 10:14 PM:

    @David, December 22, 2012 6:59 PM

    NCAA Division I student athletes put in a lot of otherwise uncompensated work into mastering their sport. In theory this should weigh in the admissions process no more / no less than any other extracurricular project of equal value to the university community that represents a similar effort. Indeed, most admissions committees will look favorably on someone who has started a business or a non-profit, or otherwise shown significant initiative. Beyond a certain point the marginal value to the student of one hour spent studying to be another perfect SAT in their file is less than the value of doing something to stand out. The university benefits from having people who have done things like start non-profits or toured with a rock band rather than 4000 perfect SAT scores.

    I speak from personal experience; I never knew this growing up, and I didn't get into the one Ivy I applied to despite a stellar academic record. Similarly, a child of immigrant parents is not necessarily going to know how to allocate her time optimally. That's a question of cultural capital passed from one generation to the next, which is a different kind of problem.

    (I realize that in practice, sports exerts a special pull even at the Ivies -- but I'm presenting the theoretical argument for crediting S/As' hard work. The school's going to make money off their labor anyway, and in the Ivies they won't have a sports scholarship.)

  • exlibra on December 22, 2012 11:19 PM:

    Ah, yes, legacy.

    Where some 3rd or 4th generation, rich, inbred Yuppie dumb-feck, gets in, and some Asian kid who doubled that dumb-feck's SAT score, has to find another college to go to. -- c u n d gulag, @6:40 PM

    Sorry, gulag, but I take exception to that. My son was, at least in part, a legacy acceptance (at Princeton, where his father got his doctoral degree), but he was no "inbred Yuppie dumb-feck". His SAT score was in 99th percentile, he was a Merit Scholar, and we had to "negotiate" with the school councilor to lower his grade average to the third place, because he didn't want to have to make a speech in public at graduation.

    What spoke for him (in addition to having a father who'd gone to that school and who started making small contributions to it as soon as it was evident that we had a rather exceptional kid on our hands) was coming from a small, rural, public highschool (as a Polack commie, I'm against private boarding schools, so we didn't send him out, but made the best of the resources available locally). What spoke against him was lack of any sports achievements, lack of any volunteer efforts in the community, and the fact that he was a white male wit a math/science "bent", and those were a dime a dozen. Even those who played music as well as he did; apparently, math and music go together like hand and glove.

    That's why he needed the legacy "leg up", not because he was an idiot with room temperature IQ and SATs lower than that. At his first choice -- MIT -- he got wait-listed; at Princeton, they factored in his father's donations and he squeaked in.

  • Walker on December 22, 2012 11:30 PM:


    at Princeton, they factored in his father's donations and he squeaked in.

    Do you know this for certain? At the Ivy that I have work at, I have been told that it effectively takes a building for it to make a significant difference.

  • exlibra on December 23, 2012 1:45 AM:

    Walker, @11:30PM. No I don't, but both my husband and I figured that his smallish but regular donations did tip the scales. Perhaps it takes a building for a moron such as gulag describes, while a steady dribble for a very good student (but "without breadth") is sufficient?

  • Joel on December 23, 2012 7:10 AM:

    Meh. Whether or not you graduate from college makes a huge difference in America. Despite the propaganda, *where* you graduate from doesn't make much difference, except in the amount of debt you graduate with.

    There are *no* academically excellent asian who don't get into college. They may not all get into the colleges their prestige-haunted parents wish them to go to, but college is and should be first about education, not collecting a badge.

    [Yes, I'm a college grad (State U.). I also have a Ph.D.(State U), a 4-year postdoc (private U) and am currently a full prof and assoc. dean (private U)]

  • c u n d gulag on December 23, 2012 7:31 AM:

    I know I paint too often with too broad of a brush, but give me a little bit of credit - I did say, "some," not 'all.'

    My thinking is, if the 'sins' of the father should not be applied to the son/daughter, then neither should any 'blessings.'

    George H. W. Bush was certainly a man worthy of going to the college where he went as a legacy.
    His son, George, as a legacy, uhm, not so much...

    And the size of an endowment, should not open doors to any and every offspring. That offsring needs to be worthy of getting into that school on his/her own merits.

    "Legacy" sounds a bit too aristorcratic to me. And unless we want more aristocracy than we've already got, much to the chagrin of most of the Founding Fathers, if they could see it, we need to limit it.

    I'm sure your son is worthy of the opportunity extended to him. And apologies for any inferences.

    Congratulations to him, and to you. That is an excellent school.

  • Bobby Goren on December 23, 2012 8:29 AM:

    Ms. Geier,


    Asian Americans represent about 20% of the Harvard Student Body and 5% of the American population. In fact, based on American Community Survey and Harvard data, Asians are so over-represented among US born students that every other ethnic group is underrepresented compared with its percent of the US population. This includes white students. Asian international students also dominate (39% of all international students).

    Exactly how has this translated into "elites" (read rich whites) gaming the system? And what happened to diversity as a goal in admissions? While the white presence at Harvard is about 80% of what you'd expect, the black and Latino presence isn't at about 60%.

    Ethnicity/ US Pop/ Harvard - US Born/ Over/Under Representation
    Black 13%/8%/60%
    Native American 1%/0%/33%
    Asian 5%/20%/398%
    Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander 0%/0%/0%
    Two or more Races 2%/NA/NA
    Latino 17%/10%/61%
    White 63%/50%/79%
    Source Harvard and ACS

    Lastly, you consider the UVA Fall 2003 legacy statistics (91% white, 1.6% Asian) as "stunning" without really thinking about the context. An 18 year old entering in 2003 would be the child of a student in the mid-1980s when UVA was a much different place. UVA was more a state school at that time and overwhelmingly white. That the vast majority of legacy students would be white is to be expected and is NOT an indictment of current practices there.

    I know you need to blog, blog, blog. But please try to think once in a while before typing.

  • Rick B on December 23, 2012 12:56 PM:

    The purpose of the Ivy League universities is not to educate students. It is to indoctrinate the new intake group of the elite social groups into the elite society. Obviously the (largely white and aging) American elite society cannot accept very many new members with Asian heritage. Or Black.

    No quota? Don't make me laugh.

    If you want to know the quality of the education in the Ivy League Schools, remember that George W. Bush could not get into the University of Texas Law School, so instead he entered his safety school - Harvard Business School.

    Check it. Harvard Business School is not accredited.

  • Anonymous on December 23, 2012 2:06 PM:

    @Rick B. George W. wasn't a legacy at Harvard. Also UT law school just is more selective than Harvard Business school, it still is. The comparison just isn't valid.

    He didn't get into Harvard business because of some magical privilege thing; he was perfectly qualified for admission to Harvard business. He would not have been admitted to Harvard Law (because Harvard law is much more selective); he certainly would have been admitted to UT business school.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on December 23, 2012 2:32 PM:

    HBS is a founding member of the AACSB.

  • Andrew J. Lazarus on December 23, 2012 5:38 PM:

    Mr. Goren, I guess if you need to comment, comment, but would it be too much to ask you to fish for statistics in the correct universe? There is strong reason to believe Asians are more prevalent in the pool of 12th graders who meet Harvard's minimum admissions criteria than in the population at large.

  • Joseph Ting on December 24, 2012 3:39 PM:

    Re: Discrimination against Asian American students in Ivy League admissions

    By Kathleen Geier, Washington Monthly, 22nd Dec 2012

    The consensus appears to be that barriers are being unfairly raised to stem the tide of Asian-American student admission into prestigious universities. However measurable selection criteria such as exceptional high school grades, test scores and academic honors do not necessarily predict future college academic performance, course completion, successful and importantly satisfying work lives. These parameters cannot gauge how well-suited an applicant is for their intended profession. Gaining entry into a sought after college place is only the beginning of a long journey.

    As a physician, I know patients want to be cared for by a competent and knowledgeable professional. However they place equal if not greater value on empathy, altruism and excellent communication. None of these qualities correspond to a grade or test score. Although susceptible to interviewer bias, personal judgement and leanings, the medical school interview is indispensable in gaining insight into an applicant’s maturity and suitability for a life of caring for the sick. These desirable human qualities cannot be exclusively distilled into a set of standardized scores. Perhaps non-Asian applicants with lower test scores are being admitted on the basis of better performance at interviews that assess their life perspective. This possibility dilutes the deafening argument that Asian-American college applicants are being systematically or deliberately disadvantaged. These could underlie informed debate on non-scored criteria used in college admissions.

  • Anonymous on April 09, 2013 2:03 AM:

    Dr. Ting, you seem to insinuate that Asian Americans may not be getting into the Ivies because they lack communication skills. My son had stellar interviews with Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Brown. Each interviewer spent over an hour and a half conversing with him, commenting how extraordinary he was and that they would write him an excellent recommendation. In spite of such spectacular interviews, amazing GPA, 2300 on the SAT, leadership roles in school and community, artistic endeavors and internships that will make even a college senior envious, my son did not even get wait listed in these schools. I have to wonder just what it takes for an Asian-American male to gain admission to the ivies. Certainly my son's case strengthens the writer's argument.