Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Possible Discrimination in Ivy League Admissions

Sorry for being so silent – I still gotta get my annual letter out to my investors! – but I wanted to take a moment to send this long, fascinating article that I had a chance to read while in Kenya. David Brooks included it in his annual list of the best articles of the year (for others, see part 1 and part 2 ). Here’s what Brooks wrote:

At the start of the 1980s, about 5 percent of Harvard students were Asian-American. But the number of qualified Asian-American applicants rose so that by 1993 roughly 20 percent of Harvard students had Asian heritage.

But, according to Ron Unz, a funny thing then happened. The number of qualified Asian-Americans continued to rise, but the number of Asian-Americans admitted to Harvard fell so that the student body was about 16 percent Asian. Between 1995 and 2011, Harvard’s Asian-American population has varied by less than a percentage point around that 16.5 percent average. Not only that, the percentage of Asian-Americans at other Ivy League schools has also settled at a remarkably stable 16 percent, year after year.

This smells like a quota system, or at least that was the implication left by Unz’s searing, sprawling, frustrating and highly debatable piece, “The Myth of the American Meritocracy,” in The American Conservative. It wins the first of the 2012 Sidney Awards, which go to the best magazine essays of the year.

You’re going to want to argue with Unz’s article all the way along, especially for its narrow, math-test-driven view of merit. But it’s potentially ground-shifting. Unz’s other big point is that Jews are vastly overrepresented at elite universities and that Jewish achievement has collapsed. In the 1970s, for example, 40 percent of top scorers in the Math Olympiad had Jewish names. Now 2.5 percent do. The fanatical generations of immigrant strivers have been replaced by a more comfortable generation of preprofessionals, he implies.

I have mixed feelings about the article (and not just because my oldest is in 11th grade and starting to go through this process!). Unz makes a compelling case that if academic merit were the sole criteria, Asians would be at least 40% of the student body at the top colleges and universities in the country, vs. the 16% they are today at most of these schools.

So it’s discrimination, plain and simple, right?

Not so fast…

As a country, we’ve never said that all of the precious slots at our most elite educational institutions should go to the top academic performers (putting aside for the moment how that’s measured). Yes, there always will (and should) be room for the next Einstein, but in general, these institutions are seeking to identify (and them presumably groom) the future LEADERS of this country – not only in academia, but also in business, arts, government, nonprofits, sports, etc.

And here’s the thing: while I’m not an expert on this, every study I’ve seen (plus observation and common sense) says that once someone reaches a certain level of smarts, there’s very little correlation between additional smarts and success in life, becoming a leader and contributor to society, etc.

In order for me to come to any conclusions about whether Asians are being discriminated against, I’d want to know a lot more about the Asian applicants than just their academic records. For example, what percent:

·        Exceled in music and others arts?
·        Edited their school newspaper?
·        Captained a varsity team?
·        Were elected class president?
·        Founded or were elected president of a major student group (debate, chess, etc.)?
·        Engaged in meaningful volunteer/philanthropic work?

*Controversial statement alert!* I’d guess that, other than being hugely over-represented in piano and violin, Asian applicants to top schools are hugely under-represented in all of the other areas I’ve cited. (Before you send me hate email for perpetuating stereotypes, see the statistics in this brilliant, provocative, in-depth article: Paper Tigers -- What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends? 

So the real question is: how should Ivy League (and equivalent) schools choose between: a) a student in the top 5% academically who’s also the class president and captain of the basketball team vs. b) a student who’s in the top 1% academically, but little else?

There is no right or easy answer to this question. But it’s clear that Unz’s article is simplistic and wrong to ignore these other factors and nuances and label Ivy League admissions “corrupt”…

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