A phenomenon that may be beyond the ken of American universities to understand.
When the New York Times reported that the Justice Department’s civil rights division might investigate and litigate “intentional race-based discrimination” on campus, focusing on earlier complaints from Asians at Harvard University, affirmative-action engines roared into action, with the inevitable exhaust about racism and privilege in America.
In the vaporous world of college admissions, of course, “intentional race-based discrimination” is the coin of the realm.
Schools enact grandiose diversity goals to match the general population. But the actual choices made in admissions offices favor a different set of students. Since 2000, Asian enrollments at top U.S. colleges and universities have rocketed. White enrollments nationwide have dropped from about two-thirds to one-half.
Selective private schools calculate ethnicity in ways to fog the numbers, and numbers vary based on the arithmetic. Asians are minorities when top schools need to flash high diversity numbers. “At selective colleges, Asians are demographically overrepresented minorities, but they are underrepresented relative to the applicant pool,” states Jeannie Suk Gersen, a Harvard law professor, writing in the New Yorker.
Asian-Americans with U.S. citizenship make up one group. Foreigners are another. Public and private colleges and universities aggressively court cash-cow international students who pay much higher non-resident tuitions. Writing checks, Asian nationals are pouring into undergraduate programs across the country. Mainland Chinese students in U.S. schools have increased five-fold to 300,000 since 2007. Indians, Koreans, and Taiwanese follow close behind, clustered in STEM programs and business schools. These Asians think of themselves purely in national, not group or continental, terms.
Label-conscious Asians, foreign and domestic, remain fixated on admittance to a few high-prestige U.S. schools. Top schools want to — and do — avoid Asian super-grinds who are conniving to get a green card, don’t mix with gweilo, cannot speak or write English, and make life hell for language instructors. Second-tier schools don’t have that luxury. They need the money.
Harvard College is private, so its student profile is not accidental, nor is it something the government manages, not yet. Harvard sets higher bars for admissions for Asians and whites than for blacks and Hispanics. Asian and white applicants face admissions discrimination at schools like Harvard because so many proficient candidates exist.
The Asian influx is actually something the college manages quite well, and exclusion is surely not the case. Harvard’s bigger headache might come from what to do with Chinese tour buses gumming up Harvard Square, and tour groups walking through campus in aggressive packs with selfie sticks.
While Harvard and other top schools wear a diversity rainbow as their badge, they want to — and do — attract students who go on to be high achievers in business, government, and culture. Selective schools seek outstanding individuals globally from every conceivable background. They admit children of rich, famous, important alumni, thinking of future donations. Children from privileged backgrounds add cachet and savoir-faire to the mix.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Asians comprise more than one-fifth of Harvard, Yale and Princeton undergraduates. Princeton’s entering class this year is 26% Asian. Jews represent 12% of undergrads at Harvard, 27% at Yale, and 9% at Princeton, according to Hillel. Like Asians, Jews represent an over-represented minority in the Ivy League.
Unlike the Ivy League, the University of California, and many other public universities are forbidden by state law to make race-based admissions. On the Berkeley campus, undergraduates measure 39% Asian-American and 26% white. At San Diego, it’s 39% Asian-American and 19% white. At Irvine, it’s 38% Asian-American, 14% white. But factor in foreign students and undergraduate Asian enrollments jump to an astonishing 54% at Berkeley, 62% at San Diego, and 64% at Irvine.
At Harvard, the redistribution of admission advantages falls most heavily on underprivileged white men. After 1945, the university went national and democratic, opening its doors to middle-class students from public schools. It admitted many more Jews and Catholics but few blacks, Hispanics, or Asians until the 1970s. Sons of Iowa ministers and Long Island optometrists, working-class Eagle Scouts, Irish and Italians and Jews — the men who a generation ago ran things from Boston to Seattle — got a leg up.
Once eagerly recruited, promising lower-income white men today have the wrong “cultural flavor” — a term of art among admissions officers. To their dismay, Jewish men, who are categorized as white, cede admissions slots and minority status to Africana and Latinx go-getters.
Underserved groups — another term of art — with the right cultural flavor have succeeded the scholarship boys of yore waiting on tables. But counting by race requires mental gymnastics and fudging to get the right outcomes. In the Ivy League, talented West Indian progeny and Mexican preppies help boost the Ivy League’s students-of-color numbers, a recent New York Times review of campus diversity indicates.
Hispanics, the fastest growing college population, benefit from a racial designation so elastic as to create a misrepresentation racket. At the University of California and elsewhere, self-identification throws an applicant — what is Hispanic, really? — into the less demanding “underrepresented minorities” pool. To the good, the University of California and other schools claim to have instituted “holistic” admissions, trying to favor low-income students of all races and backgrounds.
Black students of quality are hard to find, since there is not enough documented academic talent to go around. For those who want enrollment numbers to match the general population, or who believe racism and white privilege are the fundamental barriers to minorities’ college success, preferential admissions standards are not at all enough.
Asian focus, work ethic, and brains are triumphing in academe. Lo and behold, after all the mumbo-jumbo, privilege points, and set-asides, college admissions seem to confirm that academic talent is unevenly distributed by group, markedly so.
Asian students demonstrate exceptional ability to use educational opportunity. The degree to which they’ll have the chance to do so in the future remains a vexing legal and ethical question.
March 4, 2017 protest in Berkeley, CA MLK Civic Center Park. (FirstCultural/Creative Commons)