A couple of weeks ago I wrote, here, of a new complaint that selective schools that give affirmative action preferences to blacks and Hispanics affirmatively discriminate against Asians. Now Christopher Shea, writing in the Boston Globe, has more.
In the late 1980s, in response to complaints, the Office of Civil Rights investigated whether Harvard had been discriminating against Asian-Americans. It found that while Asian-Americans faced longer odds than whites at admissions time (a 13.2 percent acceptance rate, compared with 17.4 percent for white students, from 1979 to 1988), the difference could largely be explained by the fact that few were legacy kids or recruited cornerbacks. The investigation did, however, turn up some embarrassingly stereotypical descriptions of rejected Asian students in Harvard records (“he’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor”).
To bolster his case, Li has cited work by two Princeton researchers, Thomas Espenshade and Chang Chung, that was originally framed as strengthening the case for affirmative action. In articles published in 2004 and 2005 in Social Science Quarterly, Espenshade and Chung analyzed the admissions fates and qualifications of 45,500 students who applied to three very elite, unnamed universities in 1997.
The chief finding, according to the authors, was that ending all admissions preferences — for athletes, legacy kids, and minorities — would cut the number of black students at elite colleges by two-thirds, and Hispanic enrollment by one-half. Ending just legacy and athletic preferences, meanwhile — something often proposed by egalitarians — would, on its own, not help black and Hispanic students much.
But Li’s complaint draws attention to other aspects of the study: Asian-American students faced by far the lowest admissions rates of any ethnic group (17.6 percent, compared with 23.8 percent for whites, 33.7 percent for blacks, and 26.8 percent for Hispanics). What’s more, contrary to the Office of Civil Rights report from 1990, legacy and athletic preferences trimmed Asian-American enrollment by only a few percentage points. But if preferences based on race, legacy status, and athletic talent were all done away with, Asian-American enrollment would jump 40 percent (while white enrollment would drop by 1 percent). To Li, it seems Asian-Americans alone bear the burden of affirmative action.
It sounds like a pretty strong argument, and it fits well with the data I cited in my former post, linked above, that in the aftermath of Proposition 209 the proportion of white freshmen fell while the proportion of Asians rose.
Although the Princeton study seems quite useful, I’m not sure the same can be said of what at least one of its authors has to say. Shea notes:
Espenshade declined to answer questions about the study, saying via e-mail that he only wished to state “the obvious: academic merit is not the only kind of merit that elite college admission officers consider in making admission decisions.”
Although on one level this statement is obviously true, on another it’s quite inane, since it is not at all obvious that legacy status or skin color is any “kind of merit” at all.