Articles, Princeton writings November 29, 2004

Admissions policies unfair to Asians

by Kai Chan

Fifteen percent of Princeton undergraduates are Asian-Americans (among domestic students).  Compared with peer institutions, this is actually a low figure.  At Yale and Harvard, Asians make up 17 and 19 percent of the population, respectively.  Although these are high numbers, enrollment would actually increase if not for current legislation.

What would happen to the number of Asians at elite schools if admissions were truly race-blind?  In the California school system, race is prohibited by law from being a factor in college admissions (although statistics still point to bias against Asians).  A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the increased enrolment of Asian-Americans in California schools after they passed proposition 209, SAT scores and historical extrapolation based on quota-like discrimination against Jews pre-WWII, shows that if not for race-based preferences, Asians would account for about 30 percent of the population at schools like Harvard and Princeton.  This would certainly change the landscape of higher learning.

Should schools like Princeton support programs like affirmative action?  First, let me critique affirmative action.  It should not be cloaked as a tool to overcome historical discrimination or slavery.  For one, this implies that Asians do not face discrimination or past prejudices (e.g., the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese-Americans).  Moreover, Hispanics are beneficiaries of the system but were not brought here as slaves.  And as Harvard scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Laini Guinier note, even among African-Americans, most who do benefit are not descendants of American slaves.

Is it fair in the name of (skin-deep) diversity to hold back qualified students from admission to the Ivies because of their race? After all, it is a fact that Asians need higher academic achievements than their peers to get admitted to the same school.

We, as a society, have deemed education something for which we would like to see a proportional outcome.  But Asian-Americans face systematic discrimination in other venues.  Thus, not only must Asians leap over the hurdles of social exclusion and racism (would Will Hung be so funny if he weren’t Asian; what of Mickey Rooney’s character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”?), but this group is being penalized in the one area where it has a comparative advantage.  Besides, aren’t programs such as legacy admissions just another form of “affirmative action” that also works against Asians?  Actually, legacy admissions will help Asians in the long run, but there is now a consensus that this practice should end (as it should), just before they can take advantage of it.

Although diversity is laudable in and of itself, shouldn’t progressive policies be used to help people who grew up underprivileged?  Albeit that underrepresented minorities do disproportionately attend bad schools and have higher incidences of poverty (though not those who end up Princeton), there are many Asians, as well as whites, who grew up equally poor and attended equally bad schools.  Yet current laws discriminate against all Asians, irrespective of background.

If affirmative action is simply about awarding points in the admissions process to people based on skin colour, then this just creates a social injustice in the name of social engineering.  A just solution is to make sure that all children have access to good primary and secondary schools. After all, aren’t we about equality of opportunity?

The misguided approach of programs like affirmative action can be seen through my experience. I am the son of poor, non-English speaking parents, neither of whom attended high school.  They never read to me as a child.  They never attended my graduations.  I went to some terrible high schools.  (Altogether, I attended five high schools, one of which was known locally as “last chance high.”)  I worked practically full-time while attending high school and college.  But I’ve never gotten the benefit of the doubt anytime in my life.  If anything, I’ve had to be better than my peers.

Discriminatory practices against Asians at higher education go beyond admissions.  Consider the 45 trustees at Princeton. Only three are Asian-Americans: two are South Asian and one is East Asian.  And of school administrators, less than three percent are Asian-Americans.  It seems that Asians are invisible minorities in this society.  This is shameful!

The Daily Princetonian: “Admissions policies unfair to Asians”

By Kai Chan Columnist Published: Monday, November 29th, 2004

Comments 2
  • Reader’s response to “Admissions policies unfair to Asians”

    Asians don’t need to receive affirmative action

    Regarding ‘Admissions Policies Unfair to Asians,’ Kai Chan, Nov. 28:

    Kai Chan made several valid points. It is true that East/Southeast Asians suffered through a variety of past injustices. I would also agree that the Board of Trustees should better represent the ethnic/racial/gender makeup of the student population.

    But I find fault with several of the author’s points. First, the California school system is primarily funded by taxpayer dollars, whereas ours benefits from alumni donations, allowing us to choose students as we see fit. Thus, the school has made an effort to assemble a student body that more closely resembles the population of the United States. Still, Princeton’s Asian American population (by percentage) is 3.66 times that of the United States. This is a testament to the excellent work ethic, personal qualities and determination of Asian-American students, but it seems unreasonable to skew the student population any further.

    Affirmative action is not simply “a tool to overcome historical discrimination or slavery”; nothing could make good on such injustices. It is, however, an attempt to level the playing field. In a perfect world, this could occur independently, and the student body could be composed in a race-blind manner. However, cliche as it may be, education is the key to success. By practicing affirmative action, Princeton University is doing its part to ensure that the future leaders of America will come from all walks of life. It is a small step, but it is better than ignoring the problem altogether.

    Sean McGowan ’06

    My original response when I was a columnist for the Daily Princetonian:

    I do not understand the logic of holding back qualified students just because their peer racial group does disproportionately well. Why do we wish to do redistributive policies with education along fictional lines of race? Why should a group be penalised for valuing education? After all, this is essentially what is being done with Asians. People need to take responsibility for their own actions — I am not a fan of the prodigal son. Anyhow, the current system is inherently unfair as someone from an affluent background (and, say, whose mother is a professor and father is a lawyer) and happens to belong to an under-represented racial group, has a lower bar to clear in college admissions than an abjectly poor Asian immigrant (and, say, whose parents do not speak English). Besides, isn’t the letter writer advocating racism by permitting a group to be punished just for their ethnicity? Dan Golden of the WSJ has written on this topic. I suggest people look up his works. He is also writing a book on a similar matter — get yourself a copy when it comes out! (Disclaimer: I was interviewed for part of his book on the unfair treatment in higher education against students of Asian descent.)

    Anyhow, my conclusions are supported by this recent Princeton study (Espanshade & Chung, 2005), among others. Personally, I support affirmative action that is income-based. Ask yourself this: Why should the children of the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan get the benefit of affirmative action, while not the children of poor Chinatown grocery and restaurant workers?

  • A few thoughts that might explain the relatively higher test scores of the average Asian at Princeton and peer institutions.

    Test scores and race are not the only two factors in admissions. Diversity of other kinds (activities, family background, and yes income) are all considered. It seems to me that on some of these dimensions Asians are a generally less diverse population (in the US, not in Asia) than other populations in the US. For instance, a disproportionate number of Asians in the United States are either first generation or second generation immigrants (this is true of a majority I am pretty sure, particularly if you discount Hawaii). They are also (especially on the east coast, where they are more likely to go to schools like Yale and Princeton instead of Stanford and Berkeley) disproportionately from just a few countries in Asia, notably China and Korea. These countries, while they have some diversity, are in turn relatively homogeneous.

    This in contrast with, to take a concrete example, the African American population.

    Diversity of origin and immigration experience

    Blacks include many immigrants from the Caribbean, and number of African countries, but also descendant of slaves who have been here for many generations. This is already a group that has more significantly different sub-categories with a significant population than do Asians in the US. Moreover, in my experience a significant number of students from each of these populations is represented at elite institutions. Despite frequent claims that affirmative action benefits mostly Caribbean and African immigrants and their children, rather than descendants of slaves, I think this argument is overblown. It may indeed benefit such people disproportionately, but off the top of my head I can think of a number of descendants of slaves who were friends of mine at Princeton, and I would guess that they make up about half of the blacks there. As for the others, they come from a wide range of countries and backgrounds.

    Diversity of activities

    At the risk of sounding stereotypical, I will say that Asian children in the US often have devoted a disproportionate amount of their time to a small range of activities, in part because that is what their parents (at the moment still usually immigrants) expect of them. Indeed, it may sound stereotypical to talk about the orchestra-instrument-playing and tennis-playing Asians, but in my experience such stereotypes are founded. I actually thin, based on people I have met, that elite colleges often make an effort to accept Asians who do not meet these stereotypes, but there are only so many who are in a reasonable academic range and do not.

    The stereotypes also extend to academic activities. For instance, Asians are thought to generally put a strong emphasis on science and math (again, this has to do in part with what the Chinese call a 重理轻文 set of traditions that their parents often imbue them with. However, this is also at the expense of focusing on the humanities and social sciences which make up a large percentage of majors at elite schools. Again, I know this is not universally true, and indeed I think that often top schools deliberately try to take Asians who want to major in politics, classics, or history as opposed to math-track economics, financial engineering, or pre-med disciplines.

    A final incidental point. You touched on legacy admissions but you did not touch on admissions for sports. Many people are admitted largely because they are good at a sport. This may be a bad policy (I think it is), but it is also race blind. Nevertheless, it almost certainly has the effect of reducing diversity, as athletes who play sports at elite schools are disproportionately white. I have heard from a social scientist (Mark Gould at Haverford) that this hurts blacks as well as Asians, because while both groups play sports, their communities in America are very skewed towards a few sports.

    Interestingly, basically everything that I just said above appears to be less true for third generation immigrants, and often Asian students develop new interests once they leave home and get away from the watchful eye of their parents. So the problem may eventually correct itself as Asian-Americans, in a sense, become more diverse.

    Diversity of income/family education background

    I am not an expert on either point, but I believe you are. Aren’t Asians both the richest and best-educated group in the US? Sure, there are certainly some children of Korean grocers and Chinese restaurant-owners in the US, but there are also a very large number of rich Asians in the US, whose parents are working as scientists, academics, and engineers, among other high-income jobs. Also, even when parents are earning relatively low incomes, they often are actually highly educated, but chose to come to the US for their children. All of these leads to relative homogeneity of background.

    One final factor that I would like to mention briefly, is that of culture. It seems to me that, even if Asian parents are poor, and usually even if they themselves are uneducated, they still strongly value education. This is laudable, but it does mean they come to college with a set of assumptions about what is important in life, and strongly imbued values, that are not shared by large chunks of the US population. To the extent that we value a diversity of experience, we might want more people who come from a community that does not emphasize the importance of education, but who somehow managed to get good test scores and grades anyway.

    All of this assumes that diversity of perspectives and background is a good thing, and that we should not just go by test scores. We could argue this, but spending a lot of time in China, where the Gaokao determines everything, has made me think that is not a good idea. (Of course the Gaokao is grossly unfair, has rampant cheating, and requires lower scores for people from Beijing and Shanghai to get into elite schools, but don’t get me started on that). I personally think that a diversity of perspectives is really valuable. Students obviously should meet high academic standards, but I don’t really know that we should choose between someone who had a 3.8 GPA (at a similar high school) and a 1450 and a 4.0 and 1550 based purely on grades. Once past a certain point of academic seriousness, diversity of all kinds (most of all of experience and perspective) is really valuable.

    One final thing: I understand that basically everything I just said here does not apply to you (except maybe the parents valuing education thing and having a background in China or Korea thing). But, in fairness, you were not an undergraduate at Princeton, and I think you are pretty unusual.

    Anyway, this is a complicated topic and cannot be addressed in just a few pages. I hope this gets the conversation going.

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