Apologies for failing to blog about the recent accusations of discrimination against Asian-Americans in elite college admissions. With luck, the Record is hard at work on a story about Williams. (You can be certain that the average SAT score of the Asian-American students at Williams is significantly higher than that for non-Asians. This may not be evidence of discrimination, but it sure would be nice if the Record could report the facts.) In the meantime, here is a useful overview article. Excerpts, comments and links below the break.

In most contexts on college campuses, Asian-Americans are “people of color,” a stripe in the multicultural rainbow. But when it comes to elite-college admissions, Asian-Americans put a strain on the usual “minority” alliances.

Is “people of color” still a widely used term? It was big back in the 80s (and I took sophomoric delight in calling myself a “boyfriend of color”), but such terminology tends to change over time. Perhaps our readers can suggest a more up-to-date phrase?

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Jian Li, a freshman at Yale, had filed a complaint against Princeton with the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education, charging that the university had rejected him because he was Asian-American. Despite perfect SAT scores, near-perfect achievement test scores, nine AP classes, and a class rank in the top 1 percent at Livingston High School in New Jersey, Li says he was rejected by Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT, while getting into Yale, Cooper Union, Rutgers, and Cal Tech.

Rejected by UPenn and accepted by Yale? That doesn’t seem like a common event. More details on the case here. We have covered this topic before. My conclusion is the same now as before: Williams does not discriminate against Asian applicants — at least any more than it does against white applicants. To be precise, if you prevented the admissions office from knowing which applicants were white and which Asian, the resulting admissions decisions would be approximately the same. Non-whites/Asians receive a boost, but that is a different topic.

Li, whose family moved to the United States from China when he was 4, told The Daily Princetonian that he was “fine” with being at Yale, but that discrimination against Asian-Americans in admissions had long bothered him. His decision to sue Princeton alone was “kind of arbitrary,” he said. “If something comes of it, it will send a message for all the universities.”

Understatement! If Li gets anywhere with this suit, it would radically alter the ethnic composition of elite colleges. I don’t expect that to happen, nor would any believer in federalism want to see the federal government telling private colleges who they must and must not admit.

To judge from the responses in Ivy League newspapers, most students wish he’d spared the effort. In The Daily Princetonian, Zachary Goldstein, a 2005 graduate, said the Yale frosh was “like a bad ex-boyfriend,” harassing Old Nassau after she’d spurned him. A Yale Daily News columnist, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, in a guest piece for the Princeton paper, called it “reprehensible” that “Li had the gall to unnecessarily racialize a personal defeat.”

“Most students”? Hmmm. I think that would depend on how the question is worded. Time for a Record survey! What percentage of Williams students would agree with the claim that Williams should consider race in admissions? What if the phrasing insisted that Williams should and would still consider family income? I have no sense for campus opinion on this topic. Of course, many college students at places like Williams and Princeton are not overly concerned about affirmative action since they got in. Ask the students who were rejected the same question and you might get a different answer.

The Yale writer went on to note that, in fact, “Asian-Americans are over represented” at Princeton: They make up 13 percent of undergraduates, compared with 4.5 percent of the population.

And so are Jewish students. We have been down this road before. If you insist (as Williams does) on having a student population “that reflects national populations” than you will need fewer Asian and Jewish students. If they are overrepresented, than some other group must, by definition, be underrepresented.

Note also that the grouping together of Asian-Americans into a single ethnic group is unfortunate. Do you think that, say, Bangladeshi-American and Hmong-American students are overrepresented at Princeton? I doubt it. To the extent that there is a “problem,” it is driven by students whose ancestors are from North-East Asia (China, Korea, Japan).

How accurate is that 13% figure? Li refused to check the correct box in his college applications. Assuming that he was not the only Asian student to do so, isn’t Princeton probably more Asian than 13%? (We are still trying to determine the accuracy of Williams data. My guess is that elite colleges, including Williams, underestimate the percentage of students who have at least one Asian parent.)

Princeton’s admissions office, for its part, maintains that it makes no effort to align student demographics with that of the national population.

Yeah, right! I have no problem with honest defenders of affirmative action or diversity-as-education. I disagree but their position is defensible, their arguments reasonable. But dissemblers are another story . . .

Describing Li’s complaint as “without merit,” Princeton spokespeople have said that every student is evaluated using both academic and nonacademic criteria (such as leadership and artistic ability). And like other colleges, Princeton defends giving black and Hispanic students, children of alumni, and athletes a boost on the nonacademic side of the ledger.

Yeah, yeah. It is the magnitude of this “boost” that Princeton declines to share with the rest of us. Big picture, alumni kids get the equivalent of 50 SAT points (at most), tipped athletes 100 (more for high profile men’s sports) and URMs 150.

Yet Li isn’t alone in his concerns, the derision heaped on him by his contemporaries notwithstanding. Daniel Golden, author of the Journal story this month, helped bring the issue of discrimination against Asian-Americans back to life this year in his book “The Price of Admission,” in which he dubs Asian-Americans “the new Jews.” From the 1920s through the 1950s, Jewish applicants with straight A’s vexed elite-college admissions officers, who wanted to maintain a strong WASP tone on their campuses. The result was quotas.

Golden basically concludes that some Asian-American students who would be admitted if they were of any other ethnicity get rejected — often for reasons based on stereotype — to make room for “more desirable” students. But he can’t make an airtight case. The question now is: Will the Office of Civil Rights, with its investigative powers, prove Li and Golden right?

Golden’s book is interesting for its gossip but unpersuasive on this point. Whatever discrimination exists against Asian-Americans is nothing compared to what Jews faced 75 years ago. Previous commentary here and here.

In the late 1980s, in response to complaints, the Office of Civil Rights investigated whether Harvard had been discriminating against Asian-Americans. It found that while Asian-Americans faced longer odds than whites at admissions time (a 13.2 percent acceptance rate, compared with 17.4 percent for white students, from 1979 to 1988), the difference could largely be explained by the fact that few were legacy kids or recruited cornerbacks. The investigation did, however, turn up some embarrassingly stereotypical descriptions of rejected Asian students in Harvard records (“he’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor”).

Sounds about right. I do not believe that elite northeastern schools significantly discriminate against Asians relative to whites. (Is the same true in California?) I believe that admissions officers may use stereotypes because, well, some stereotypes are true. Lots of Asian-American students want to be doctors! This is news? Now, obviously, even if these (and other) stereotypes are true, Williams should judge each student as an individual, evaluate her on her own merits, and yada, yada, yada. But I have not seen much evidence that this is a real issue today.

What’s the counterargument? Well, the key change since the “late 1980s” is that the Asian population in the US has increased substantially, including significant growth among high income families. If Princeton/Williams was 10% Asian-American back then, I would expect the percentage to have grown, perhaps significantly. Recall that such effects will be strongest at the tails of the distribution, just where elite colleges do their recruiting.

I haven’t found decent data on this but I would wager that while Asian-Americans might make up only 13% (or whatever) of all students scoring above 1400 on the SAT, they make up a much higher percentage of those scoring above 1500.

To bolster his case, Li has cited work by two Princeton researchers, Thomas Espenshade and Chang Chung, that was originally framed as strengthening the case for affirmative action. In articles published in 2004 and 2005 in Social Science Quarterly, Espenshade and Chung analyzed the admissions fates and qualifications of 45,500 students who applied to three very elite, unnamed universities in 1997.

The chief finding, according to the authors, was that ending all admissions preferences — for athletes, legacy kids, and minorities — would cut the number of black students at elite colleges by two-thirds, and Hispanic enrollment by one-half. Ending just legacy and athletic preferences, meanwhile — something often proposed by egalitarians — would, on its own, not help black and Hispanic students much.

Correct. Legacy/athletic/income preferences don’t really affect the white student percentage at places like Williams and Princeton. More detail on this study here.

The percentage of admitted students who are black would fall to 3.3 percent, from 9 percent. For Hispanics, the drop would be to 3.8 percent, from 7.9 percent.

Such dramatic changes in policy would have little impact, however, on white applicants. Their admission rate would rise slightly, to 24.3 percent, from 23.8 percent.

The big gains would be for Asian applicants. Their admission rate in a race-neutral system would go to 23.4 percent, from 17.6 percent. And their share of a class of admitted students would rise to 31.5 percent, from 23.7 percent.

I have my doubts about the technical details of the approach that the authors use but the main finding seems fairly robust. The big losers from affirmative action are Asian-Americans, especially students of Chinese, Korean or Japanese descent.

But Li’s complaint draws attention to other aspects of the study: Asian-American students faced by far the lowest admissions rates of any ethnic group (17.6 percent, compared with 23.8 percent for whites, 33.7 percent for blacks, and 26.8 percent for Hispanics). What’s more, contrary to the Office of Civil Rights report from 1990, legacy and athletic preferences trimmed Asian-American enrollment by only a few percentage points. But if preferences based on race, legacy status, and athletic talent were all done away with, Asian-American enrollment would jump 40 percent (while white enrollment would drop by 1 percent). To Li, it seems Asian-Americans alone bear the burden of affirmative action.

Espenshade declined to answer questions about the study, saying via e-mail that he only wished to state “the obvious: academic merit is not the only kind of merit that elite college admission officers consider in making admission decisions.”

Whatever. Elite colleges want to have 20% of the class be black/Hispanic because this is as close as they can get to having student populations which “look like” America without incredibly large preferences being given.

Li no doubt faces a difficult road in proving discrimination, given that elite colleges turn down many stellar applicants, but his complaint has touched a nerve. “[T]here can be good reasons for the disproportionately low acceptance rates for many Asians,” one self-identified Yale student wrote on the online news site Inside Higher Ed, discussing Li’s case. “Top-tier schools…look not only for good grades but for an interesting student who will bring something of value to the community.”

That sounds a lot like what admissions officers say, but there’s a whiff of something else, too. The less-pleasant subtext is what Li’s complaint is all about.

Where is the aggressive Record reporter who will write about this issue in the context of Williams?

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