Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Responses to Racial Discrimination in Ivy League Admissions

Lots of interesting feedback from my last post. Here’s a NYT op ed on this topic from December:

We want to fill our top universities with students of exceptional and wide-ranging talent, not just stellar test takers. But what worries me is the application of criteria like “individuality” and “uniqueness,” subjectively and unfairly, to the detriment of Asians, as happened to Jewish applicants in the past. I suspect that in too many college admissions offices, a white Intel Science Talent Search finalist who is a valedictorian and the concertmaster of her high school orchestra would stand out as exceptional, while an Asian-American with the same résumé (and socioeconomic background) would not.

The way we treat these children will influence the America we become. If our most renowned schools set implicit quotas for high-achieving Asian-Americans, we are sending a message to all students that hard work and good grades may be a fool’s errand.

One friend wrote:

Great article, thank you for passing this on. 

Several points:

1) It is very hard to be class President when racial barriers still exist, even in racially diverse high schools (Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic).  I'm originally from Texas and my high school in Houston had less than 0.5% of my graduating class that was Asian. I ran for student council and won, but because there wasn't enough African American representation the school made a series of controversially decisions, which ultimately resulted in me not being on student council. 

2) In any elected position be it Captain of a team or Editor of a newspaper, I think Asian Americans and minorities do have a harder time since they have to be that much better to stand apart (i.e. being the only Asian on a predominantly black track team). That doesn't mean that they don't want to take leadership positions, it just means that their peers are not voting them to those positions. 

3) Asian Americans in my experience are now wiser to what colleges are looking for in a well-rounded student, so are NOT just focusing on grades and test taking. I know many that were leaders of major student groups, engaged in meaningful volunteer/philanthropic work, excelled in music and other arts, and were class leaders. The only two that I can't speak on is being editors of their school newspaper and being a captain of a varsity team. I guess your statement in your email makes it seem like Asian Americans are not capable of doing those things or don't want to (which is a stereotype), I would say that they are and have been doing those things. 

4) If 40% should be the right number, but only 16.5% make it in, then there has be discrimination -- otherwise how did they come up with a random number like 16.5%? Even if the 40% were not valedictorians and captains of their football team, I'm positive that it is more than 16.5% that meet the standards that you would expect. I am also positive that the majority of the 16.5% that currently get accepted are academically high performers AND well rounded (under your general outline of what else they should be doing in their free time).

5) I think that Asian Americans do need to ramp up their leadership training as we are still underrepresented as leaders in the government, C-level suites of Fortune 500 companies, top 100 non-profits, and even in Silicon Valley. A lot of work still needs to be done.  

Last point is that I do think it’s important to have a racially diverse student body (I have benefited from different points of views and backgrounds, etc.), so I'm not advocating for a huge ramp up of Asian American acceptance rates in Ivy Leagues overnight, but I do think there is discrimination and it is something to be looked at closer. 

Another wrote:

Thank you for a thought-provoking message. I'm sure you will receive a ton of comments about this, but hopefully as one of the few Asians involved in the ed-reform movement my thoughts can make it through.

What you did below was to create a false choice. I used to run student interviewing for Stanford before starting at HBS last September, and every student I met had everything. They had perfect grades, sports achievements, leadership, community involvement, research, music, etc. It got to the point where if I were to apply today, there'd be no way in hell I could get in. However, I like to apply a "degree of difficulty" measure to how I evaluate a student. There are vastly different amounts of resources available to a student in the South Bronx vs. UES, and admissions should definitely take that into account.

Assuming we keep the proportion of blacks/hispanics the same, the issue centers around people with similar family backgrounds and resources. And here is where Asians are getting screwed. The number of highly qualified (academics + extracurriculars) is growing much faster than whites/jews, as the article states, but their enrollment figures have stayed constant. I really believe in the power of diversity and think Stuy's asian population is too high, and even Caltech's. Stanford is around 25 percent Asian, and without more data that seems to feel better than Yale's 15 percent.

My second point is around your comment on the diminishing marginal benefits of intelligence, which I agree with. However, the article is referring primarily to PSAT scores, which are although correlated to intelligence, are also correlated to hard work and delayed gratification, both indicators of future success.
These are my initial reactions after reading your note and hope can lead you to think about this issue in a slightly different way. Happy to discuss further and happy new year!

Another wrote:

Well, Whitney, this asian-american gal sighs with relief at being able to say that she was president of her high school class, captain of the tennis team, AND played violin and piano (really really badly!!). As for academics, let’s just say I have multiple siblings who were valedictorians and I was, ummm, not.  

Yes, you are likely to get some nastygrams.  I will only say that if we're serious about making our country a better place, I agree that we need many more leaders of all stripes and sizes and backgrounds who possess a variety of leadership skills honed both inside and outside the classroom.  

Hope you're well out there! Press on!

Another wrote:

I found this fascinating. 

I have to say, having grown up in pretty much the demographic you are referencing, I think your analysis is overly simplistic. Universities at their core are institutions whose primary objective is academic, and consequently the primary criteria to evaluate candidates, I believe should be academic.

Also all the things you reference as markers of leadership (captain of a varsity sport etc.), these are all concepts and institutions of a Western upbringing. It’s like expecting an African American to excel at tennis, lacrosse or golf. Setting the bar in that manner stacks the deck from the start.  I would argue that universities are a platform to develop leaderships skills. Indeed that was the case for me. I was for the first time allowed to explore without my parents oversight and that led to the Peace Corps, pursuing a career outside of medicine etc.

Asian parents push their kids into math and science, and piano and Violin because they feel they will be discriminated against in other fields. Thus choosing 'objective' careers or non-team sports are the only real prospect of equitable advancement. You live and die by your efforts alone. It is common belief within Asian cultures that 'we' are completely discriminated against in the academic setting regardless of being well rounded. I certainly believe it. 

Since I applied to college the community has gotten very smart. And kids now pursue all the leaderships posts you mention, they play sports, the run the paper, they hire consultants, they go to boarding school etc. They got wise to the game. So they outperform at academics AND they have all these other factors. But none the less the quota seems set. If you come visit a place like Penn you will see first-hand the Jews are over represented by a wide margin, but this has roots in Penn's history and leadership. 

As a dad now I think about these things, and the stakes are high, given these institutions are gatekeepers for opportunity. Personally I try to stack the deck back in my favor by picking my alma mater and giving financially. I hope that will make a difference in 20 years, or if I hit it big I can write a big check when the time comes to just make sure my kid gets a fair shot.

That said the American educational system gave me and my families opportunities I could never have otherwise imagined. It has been good to be me. From a practical sense I know the crux of the issue is that you could fill these universities with completely with just Jews and Asians, and then doesn't benefit anyone, so the current system while imperfect is the best practical solution the systems has but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make it more equitable.

Thanks for the article I really enjoyed it.

Another wrote:

One thing to consider:  you and Unz may both be right.  Personally, I fully agree with you about the importance of leadership, well-roundedness, etc.  At the same time, that doesn't mean that the college admissions process isn't unfair and discriminatory against Asians (and others).  You both may be right.

I'm not complaining as my oldest just got into Princeton with both high scores and lots of leadership.  That said, watching the process over the past few years leaves me wanting to take a shower. 

A few questions to ask yourself:
·        Is being a legacy indicative of future leadership potential?  (BTW, Golden's book documented that legacies whose parents don't donate to the alma mater had a lower chance of getting in than non-legacies.  Rational economically maximizing behavior to be sure, but hardly meritocratic in any way.)
·        Why did an admissions counselor (whom I know to be very knowledgeable) advise me that it would help be admitted to avoid checking the financial aid box?  The counselor expressed strong confidence that not checking the box aids the chance of admission, even at universities that claim need for aid is not a factor in admissions.  BTW, if it isn't a factor at such universities, why don't they ask the students if they need financial aid after admission instead of on the application?
·        Do you doubt for a second that universities take well-heeled African-American students who have had all/most of the advantages of your kids or mine (at the same schools) over African-American students from underprivileged backgrounds who have overcame enormous odds and show stronger signs of future leadership -- in the interest of promoting diversity?

I could ask more questions and likely you could too.  There's more to educating future society leaders at elite universities than pure academic excellence.  Even so, the admissions process is rife with non-meritocratic factors by any reasonable definition and likely discriminatory against less influential groups.

 Subscribe in a reader