Some Discrimination Against Asians Is OK In College Admissions. But This Much?

Aug 2, 2018

It’s becoming clear that Asian-Americans have been significantly disadvantaged in elite college admissions for decades.

Harvard’s internal review showed that if only academic achievement was considered, Asians would have made up 43 percent of the class, instead of the actual 19 percent. One study showed Asians needed higher SAT scores than all other races to have an equal chance of admission to top colleges.

None of this is news to Asian-Americans. Most Asians I know believe they’ve had to meet higher standards than students of other races to be considered equally.

A review of over 160,000 Harvard applicants showed Asians scored highest in test scores, grades, extracurricular activities and alumni interviews. But curiously, the admissions committee, often without even meeting the applicants, rated Asians significantly lower in subjective measures like “personality” and “like-ability." 

This bears a striking resemblance to the same tactics used by elite colleges in the 1920s to disguise a quota system designed to limit Jewish enrollment.

Despite this distressing parallel, many Asians like myself still support affirmative action. I wouldn't have preferred to go to a Yale that was predominantly Asian. To promote racial diversity, some discrimination against Asians is OK.

But not this much discrimination.

The evidence for bias has now grown so egregious that universities must move the needle toward greater meritocracy, and allow Asian enrollment to rise at least a moderate degree. Doing this wouldn’t reduce racial diversity. Affirmative action could still be employed to keep black and Hispanic enrollment steady.

It’s possible the lawyers suing Harvard may be motivated by a grander plan to dismantle affirmative action itself, rather than a sincere desire to help Asian students.

But at the same time, schools like Harvard should have started to change years ago.

Now the evidence may be so damning that there’s a real chance the college will be proved guilty of violating the civil rights of one racial group. This really could lead to the abolishment of affirmative action.

I don't want that to happen. But I also realize this might be what it takes to make our top universities change.

Andrew Lam, an Asian-American Yale graduate, teaches at UMass Medical School and is a trustee at Bay Path University.