The Admissions Race
Issue   |   Wed, 04/24/2013 - 00:09

As high school seniors prepare to send in their college deposits by May 1, they may breathe a sigh of relief that the admissions process is finally over. With the number of college applications proliferating and admissions rates plummeting, the process has never been more competitive and stressful. For those hapless few stuck in the limbo of waitlists, however, the pressure and anticipation continues.

Perhaps no one has suffered more from the dreaded waitlist than a certain high school friend of mine. My friend was, for lack of a better term, a statistical aberration. He possessed a bizarre talent for shading in bubbles. On his first sitting, he clocked a perfect score of 2400 on the SAT Reasoning Test. No one-hit wonder, by the end of junior year, he had added perfect scores of 800 on two SAT Subject Tests and 5’s on eight AP exams to his repertoire. With a 4.0 GPA, multiple club leadership positions and an amicable character, he was well regarded by both his teachers and peers. Needless to say, his college expectations were high.

Then, April came. The initial blow was more of a curious surprise than an outright disappointment. My friend was waitlisted by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, his four top college choices. Remaining optimistic, he would joke that the waitlist is even more selective than the admitted class, after all, the odds of being waitlisted by all four schools was smaller than being admitted to any given one. After that, however, it was a slow defeat by attrition. That year, Princeton accepted zero students of its waitlist. Harvard accepted about only 25. Eventually, Yale and Dartmouth bid their farewells, and in the end, he was rejected by all but one of the schools that he applied to regular decision.

Towards the end of summer, I had the chance to ask my friend his thoughts on the whole admissions game. He responded, visibly embittered, “It’s frustrating. It’s absolutely frustrating to know that I was so close and that the smallest factor could have tipped the scales in my favor. I worked for this, and I deserved more than disappointment. I didn’t deserve to disappoint my parents, my teachers, my friends and myself. I didn’t deserve to be waitlisted four times and rejected four times over. At least now, I can move on with my life. Yet, I know that I could’ve gotten in if only for that smallest factor…if only I hadn’t quit soccer, if only I had taken speech and debate more seriously or if only I hadn’t been born Asian.”

His answer caught me off-guard and struck me as uncharacteristically petty. Admissions to the most elite institutions are never guaranteed, regardless of how strong the applicant may look on paper. With so many qualified and unique applicants, the process is an absolute crapshoot, and no one “deserves” or is entitled to admission. The fact that my friend was waitlisted at colleges of such caliber was an achievement in of itself. Nonetheless, it struck me as odd how he was waitlisted by all, and not admitted to a single one, of his top choices. Perhaps, there was some truth to his final words. Would he still have been rejected by all four colleges had he been a different race?

We will never know the answer, for it would be impossible to produce an identical applicant, save for race, in an identical admissions year. As I began researching the issue, however, I came to the vague conclusion that being Asian certainly did not help his candidacy. After taking serious time to ponder the empirical data and observations, however, I realized what a tremendous understatement that was, and I began to feel the same bitterness and indignation that he manifested in his comments.

These are the facts. In “The Opportunity Cost of Admission Preferences at Elite Universities”, Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y Chung of Princeton Univ. state, “African-American applicants receive the equivalent of 230 extra SAT points (on a 1600-point scale), and being Hispanic is worth an additional 185 SAT points. Other things equal, recruited athletes gain an admission bonus worth 200 points, while the preference for legacy candidates is worth 160 points. Asian-American applicants face a loss equivalent to 50 SAT points” (1). In another 2009 study of more than 9,000 students who applied to selective universities, Espenshade along with Alexandria Walton Radford found that “white students were three times more likely to be admitted than Asians with the same academic record” (2).

After California passed Proposition 209 in 1996, which prohibited universities from considering race in admissions, Asian first-year enrollment at UC Berkeley increased from 37.3 percent in 1995 to 43.6 percent in 2000 to 46.6 percent by 2005. At UCSD, it increased from 35.9 percent in 1995 to 46.9 percent in 2005. (3)

According to Ron Unz, writing in the New York Times, “After the Justice Department closed an investigation in the early 1990s into charges that Harvard University discriminated against Asian-American applicants, Harvard’s reported enrollment of Asian-Americans began gradually declining, falling from 20.6 percent in 1993 to about 16.5 percent over most of the last decade … But these same years brought a huge increase in America’s college-age Asian population, which roughly doubled between 1992 and 2011” (4).

No source, however, matters more when discussing affirmative action than the Fourteenth Amendment: “No State shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The question of whether affirmative action admissions policies are constitutional will be addressed by the Supreme Court in its decision of Fisher v. University of Texas. The ruling may have tremendous implications for the admissions policies of both public universities and elite private colleges, which depend on substantial federal funding.

The case before the court is difficult and complex. I am in no position to comment on how the Court might or ought to rule. I was, however, interested in how the Fourteenth Amendment and the Court’s constitutional precedent applies to specifically Asian-Americans. The Supreme Court will not base its decision on 4.8 percent of the US population. The focus of the oral arguments of Fisher was not on Asian-American college applicants, although they were mentioned tangentially. Had it been, though, I find it extremely difficult to imagine how race-based affirmative action, as applied to Asian-Americans, is at all consistent with America’s constitutional values.

There are competing interpretations of the Equal Protection clause. One interpretation, as articulated by Justice Harlan in his dissent of Plessy v Ferguson, is that the “Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” This interpretation is closer to the interpretation that the Supreme Court professes to use. The Supreme Court applies strict scrutiny, the most stringent standard of judicial review, to laws and policies that discriminate based on race. Such laws and policies are presumptively unconstitutional, but can be justified if they serve a “compelling state interest” and are “narrowly tailored” to achieve that goal. While the Court’s task of weighing government interests against constitutional rights is formidable indeed, strict scrutiny is a troublesome solution.

“Compelling state interest” and “narrowly tailored” are by no means objective tests and are ultimately determined by the justices’ discretion. It is extremely ironic that the Court first applied strict scrutiny in Korematsu v United States to uphold the constitutionally of Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. I question the worth of a concept so malleable that it can be manipulated to condone so flagrant a usurpation of constitutional rights as Japanese internment. Nonetheless, whereas the Court’s decision in Korematsu is widely condemned, strict scrutiny continued to serve as constitutional precedent in upholding the affirmative action policies of the Univ. of Michigan Law School in Grutter v. Bollinger and continues to serve as the framework for analyzing the affirmative action policies of the Univ. of Texas in Fisher.

How do race-based affirmative action admissions policies pass strict scrutiny? What compelling state interest do they serve? The opinion of Grutter v Bollinger held that the compelling state interest served by affirmative action is diversity, to achieve a “critical mass” of “underrepresented minorities so that they do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race.” I find the Supreme Court’s answer to this question extremely problematic, considering how affirmative action is applied to Asian Americans. In practice, underrepresented minorities refer to Black and Hispanic students. This practice is predicated on an entirely arbitrary categorization of race. Burma and Korea are more different in terms of language, politics, culture and history than the United States and Mexico. While the Common Application has a circle to bubble in for Hispanic, it has only one circle for Asian. The idea that Asian-Americans do not benefit from affirmative action, despite being a racial minority, because they are “over-represented” betrays a total lack of appreciation for the scale and heterogeneity of Asia.

Hypothetically, if a university were to declare that it had achieved a critical mass of underrepresented minorities with 30 percent of its student enrollment, when in fact, 28 percent were Hispanic and only 2 percent were Black, it most certainly would not have achieved the appropriate level of diversity. It is obvious that to place Blacks and Hispanics into a single racial group would be an erroneous and arbitrary classification contrary to the goal of diversity. Yet, the Common Application insists on applying an equally arbitrary classification by failing to distinguish among Asians of different origins.

Then, I came to Amherst. Growing up in an upper middle class, suburban neighborhood made it easy to comfortably cling to the idea of meritocracy: that all else equal, the only thing that ought to matter is one’s ability and effort. At Amherst, however, being exposed to such a diverse body of people and perspectives made it impossible to ignore how parochial my prior point of view was. After all, all else is never equal. Gradually, I developed an appreciation for Amherst’s tremendous achievement: how in less than four decades it has transformed itself from a predominately white, all-male institution to a racially, culturally and socioeconomically diverse co-ed community. Affirmative action made that possible.

The notion that the Constitution should be colorblind now strikes me as distasteful. To be colorblind is to ignore three hundred years of history. If not colorblindness, what does the Fourteenth Amendment require? While the Court professes to examine affirmative action with strict scrutiny, I suspect that it is motivated by a different interpretation of equal protection: that the Fourteen Amendment requires the Court to look beyond the written law and recognize the social reality and that equal protection allows the state to acknowledge de facto discrimination and remedy the vestiges of historic discrimination.

Under this framework, the folly of a pure meritocracy becomes evident. The purpose of higher education, especially at America’s most selective schools, is not only to produce able graduates but also to serve as an avenue for social mobility. Empirical data demonstrates that students from low-income households gain most from an education at a selective college (5). To achieve that end, holistic admissions are absolutely necessary because “objective” factors, such as grades and standardized test scores, are poor indicators of ability and effort, as they fail to account for an applicant’s upbringing and environment.

Nonetheless, the practice of race based affirmative action, when applied to Asian Americans, is a crude tool in addressing the social reality and history. The fact that median household income for Asian Americans is higher than any other racial demographic makes it easy to dismiss the claim that Asians suffer from present and historic discrimination to the same extent as Black and Hispanic Americans. Yet, how does preferential admissions treatment for an applicant whose parents immigrated from Argentina in the 1990s do anymore to remedy the vestiges of historic immigration than providing that same treatment to an applicant whose Japanese grandfather was interned during World War II, or whose great-grandmother was prohibited from attending an all-white high school in Mississippi (Lum v. Rice) or whose Filipino grandfather could not marry the woman he loved because a 1953 Utah statute declared marriage between a “white and…Malayan…void.”

Race is an inadequate indicator of disenfranchisement. The best indicator that a person suffers from present and historic discrimination is persistent poverty. When attempting to redress societal inequality, admissions committees should not flag applicants of certain races but rather applicants who come from persistently impoverished households and neighborhoods. Affirmative actions ought to be based on class, not race. Current admissions practices are especially unjust to groups that happen to fall under the umbrella of Asian, yet suffer from the same social inequities as under represented minorities. Among the ten largest Asian groups in the United States, the average income of five of the groups (Vietnamese, Pakistani, Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong) falls below the national average. While combining admissions information with financial aid information is problematic (for example, a particularly unscrupulous school may disproportionately reject low-income applicants to increase revenue), an explicitly socioeconomically conscientious admissions process at America’s most elite and well-endowed institutions would more effectively target truly disadvantaged applicants.

A couple of months ago I spoke again to my high school friend and tactlessly brought up his admissions ordeal. Reflecting on his experience, his response surprised me. “As a high school senior, there are things that you think that matter that really don’t, and there are things that you don’t value that you should. Going to an Ivy League school is one of those things that really don’t matter. Going to a school with a diverse group of students, cultures and ideas is one of those things that you should value. If not for holistic admissions, I never would have met the range and variety of characters that I have in college. If not for holistic admissions, many, myself included, would not have the courage to share their unique and different perspectives. If not for holistic admissions, I very well may have ended up at Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Dartmouth, when Amherst is where I belonged all along.”


Concerned Stude... (not verified) says:
Wed, 04/24/2013 - 12:43

Unfortunately, I cannot agree with your conclusion. The compelling state interest of diversity is one that includes not only of social class but also of diversity. As the New York Times Editorial Board wrote in November of last year (, "It is not possible to maintain the same level of racial diversity in higher education while applying a race-blind admissions policy. Class-based admissions generally reduce the number of black and Hispanic students. To maintain or build the levels of racial diversity on selective campuses, it is necessary to maintain race-conscious admissions." Thus, your conclusion that "an explicitly socioeconomically conscientious admissions process at America’s most elite and well-endowed institutions would more effectively target truly disadvantaged applicants" has been shown to be incorrect by social science.

Furthermore, you seem unable to separate where the "compelling state interest" of diversity occurs (i.e. in the college) and the purpose of college in and of itself. Higher education institutions, as has been recognized, should strive for diversity, because exposing individuals at a college to the multiple viewpoints that stem from individuals' backgrounds is beneficial for the education of all the individuals at the college. You assume that college is a mechanism of social mobility. Unfortunately, I think this assumption is wrong. Biddy Martin recently wrote to the Chronicle of Higher Education that "College is for the development of intelligence in its multiple forms. College is the opportunity for achievement, measured against high standards. College is preparation for the complexities of a world that needs rigorous analyses of its problems and synthetic approaches to solving them. College is for learning how to think clearly, write beautifully, and put quantitative skills to use in the work of discovery. College is for the cultivation of enjoyment, in forms that go beyond entertainment or distraction, stimulating our capacity to create joy for ourselves and others. College is for leave-taking, of home and of limiting assumptions, for becoming self-directed, while socially responsible." That is what college is. In order to fulfill that model, colleges must have the freedom to create a diverse environment to allow for the phenomenon Biddy described. I would argue that one of the primary ways to get people to think critically is to be surrounded by people not like them - people of different races, ethnicities, social classes, political viewpoints. If social mobility has become the reason to go to college, the purpose of college has been destroyed by the capitalist regime. Furthermore, even if we were to take your assumption that college's purpose is social mobility, then why should we not call race a plus-factor (apropos the New York Times article) and then why should we not get rid of legacy as a status and plus-factor?

You claim both that the Constitution should not be colorblind, but that "race is an inadequate indicator of disenfranchisement." First, I suggest you take some sociology to understand how we still live in a racist society (See this clip from Unnatural Causes, for example: Second of all, I would check the definition of "disenfranchisement." You put a word in regarding suffrage, not discrimination, which makes me wonder whether you are able to separate political discrimination (e.g. not having access to the democratic process) and social discrimination (e.g. not having access to college because of white middle-class oriented standardized tests, a manifestation of institutional discrimination). Social discrimination based on race still exists. Understand that.


jtliu16 says:
Wed, 04/24/2013 - 16:16

Thanks for your thoughtful response.
I assure you that I very well understand that social discrimination exists. I also hope that you may understand that social discrimination is not limited to Black and Hispanic minorities. That Asian Americans still earn less in wages and are more likely to be unemployed than whites with virtually equal qualifications and that while Asian-Americans comprise about 5% of the U.S. population, they make up only 0.3% of corporate officers. That 37 percent of Hmong Americans and 29.3 percent of Cambodian Americans live below the poverty line. I certainly agree that diversity is a laudable goal. Nonetheless, colleges have limited enrollments, and there is an opportunity cost in cost in promoting diversity. I find it unjust that a substantial share of that burden is being shouldered by a minority that has little responsibly in perpetrating present or past discrimination.
Discussing socioeconomic affirmative action as opposed to racial affirmative action merits a separate article in of itself, and I could not elaborate on the conclusion without having the article be intolerably long. There are legitimate points of disagreement. I disagree with your argument both in fact and in principle. It is feasible to achieve racial diversity through race neutral means. For example, if you care to listen through the oral arguments of Fisher, the top 10 percent plan at the University of Texas was a “major generator of admissions for underrepresented minorities” and that, arguably, “the University’s race-conscious admission plan is not necessary to achieve a diverse student body because it admits so few people — so few minorities.” On a more facetious note, citing “social science” is not science. Social scientists produce such different and conflicting theories that any policy maker can selectively find the studies that support his pre-conceived conclusions. That is not a scientific method.
It still begs the question, why will selective schools not be able achieve racial diversity without racial preferences? The answer is that on average underrepresented minorities suffer from poorer high school academic performance and that many are unaware of the opportunities and resources available to them in higher education. The admissions process does not address these problems and only serves to conceal them. After all, how does providing preferential treatment to a Black applicant from Andover Academy at all help a brilliant Black student from an inner city Chicago public school, who does not even know that Amherst exists (let alone the financial aid it offers) and will not apply? (
Diversity is a compelling goal. The test of critical mass, however, is applied in an arbitrary way, especially to Asian Americans. It is not fair to lump people from disparate cultures and backgrounds into a single classification and hence declare a critical mass has been achieved. Facetiously speaking, if “exposing individuals at a college to the multiple viewpoints that stem from individuals' backgrounds is beneficial for the education of all the individuals at the college,” why are there so few Republicans at Amherst College? There is hardly a critical mass of Republicans here. Every Republican I have met to an extent feels isolated, and Andrew Kaake is very much a spokesperson for his party. Nonetheless, a couple more Republicans may be beneficial, as I find it rare for Amherst College students to respond to conservative (or even non-liberal) arguments without sarcasm and disdain. But I digress.
I’m not sure if it is a deliberate straw man or a careless reading, but I stated, “The purpose of higher education is … not only to produce able graduates but also to serve as an avenue for social mobility.” Obviously, social mobility is not the only goal. While your quote from Biddy is nice, I don’t see how it is germane to the article. We also have different understandings of social mobility. While you equate valuing social mobility to being “destroyed by the capitalist regime”, I understand social mobility to be an integral part of fostering a politically and economically inclusive society. Considering their massive resources, elite colleges ought to have an interest in social mobility and in providing a channel for those from otherwise politically and economically excluded communities to participate in society’s political and economic institutions. Such inclusiveness is vital to a prosperous nation. I wholeheartedly agree in doing away with legacy preferences.
I do indeed claim that "race is an inadequate indicator of disenfranchisement." First, I suggest that you take some economics courses to understand we still live in an unequal society, and that U.S. income inequality in 2010 was at its highest level since the United States Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. Alan Kruger writes, “The correlation between race and family income, while strong, is not strong enough to permit the latter to function as a useful proxy for race in the pursuit of diversity.” I agree family income is not a useful proxy for race, just as race is not an adequate proxy for family income. The question, however, ought to be which is a better proxy for disadvantage. While you may argue that race is, I believe that household income is a much better proxy for disadvantage. I think this a legitimate area of contention.
Such pedantic and meticulous reading is always appreciated. I apologize that “disenfranchisement” may have caused ambiguity; the word does not have as strict a denotation when used as an adjective than as a verb. To be equally pedantic and quote the Oxford Dictionary, “(as adjective disenfranchised) deprived of power; marginalized: a hard core of kids who are disenfranchised and don’t feel connected to the school.” I mistakenly assumed this meaning would have been clear from the context, but if it makes things easier, feel free to substitute disenfranchisement with “disadvantage.”

Williams Guy (not verified) says:
Wed, 04/24/2013 - 14:52

If we reward people for getting lower test scores and grades because they belong to a specific race, we give that race NO INCENTIVE to do well on tests, and in class.

I think the idea of motivating EVERYONE to excel FAR outweighs the "supposed" benefit of a "diverse" community.

How would sports teams peform if "race" were considered? Badly. We have the best teams only when they have to compete ON THEIR MERITS.


David (not verified) says:
Wed, 04/24/2013 - 16:28

Most people will certainly agree that racial diversity is important to the college experience, and that underrepresented minorities should be given some special consideration during the admissions process. The problem is the number of Asian students being capped at around 16% across the board at elite colleges and universities. In the UC system, anti-Asian practices have been removed, but at private institutions like Stanford, the numbers remain unchanged. UC Berkeley and Stanford likely have many of the same applicants, making it is easy to see anti-Asian practices are at work.
This is all quite reminiscent of the rampant discrimination against Jews in college admissions in the 20th century. I doubt many today would consider the discrimination against Jews as acceptable, and dicrimination against Asians is no different. Jews were discriminated against because colleges feared the consequences of a large Jewish population in the student body. Are people afraid that an increase in Asians will have detrimental effects too?

Concerned Stude... (not verified) says:
Thu, 04/25/2013 - 01:25

In response to the author, I have a few points. First of all, there should be better divisions in noting race/ethnicity on college applications. This would solve some of your concerns about Asian Americans being marginalized due to affirmative action. Second, if a substantial share of the burden of diversity is being put on Asian Americans, I agree that is unfair. But, according to Howard Greene, “Asian-Americans as a category have the highest rate of high school graduation of any identified group. Also, as a cohort, Asian-Americans have the highest SAT and ACT scores.” What may seem to be racial bias “is actually caused by too many people applying to college.” ( I would condemn colleges if they were not accepting Asian Americans because of fears of too many of them (which to a certain extent, one must wonder why Asian enrollments are so low). But, if their cohort is so successful in standardized tests, it is not surprising that scores needed for entry appear higher (as you write in your article). Furthermore, standardized tests, as well as race, are becoming less and less important in college admissions and are only part of the holistic admissions process employed by almost all elite institutions nowadays. Thus, while I do not deny that some discrimination exists (as I clarified above), I would say it is, because of holistic admissions, difficult to pinpoint how any such discrimination occurs. I condemn colleges if they are putting in implicit caps on Asians and burdening them substantially, especially in light of some of them being of lower social status. But, I think your data on discrimination might not tell the full picture because of our holistic admissions process.

You wrote in your response “on a more facetious note, citing “social science” is not science. Social scientists produce such different and conflicting theories that any policy maker can selectively find the studies that support his pre-conceived conclusions. That is not a scientific method.” Well, you won’t like it if I were to show you evidence of the discriminatory nature of the SATs. (;
What is key is that the SATs favor individuals with white middle-class values (I’m not sure if the links I put explicit state this, but I encourage you to read the Lemann book mentioned.) I will hope consider your facetious condemnation of social science research “facetious” – because then we could no longer show, for example, why diversity is a compelling government interest or why “separate but equal” is inherently unequal.

Third, Alan Krueger, the economist you quoted, said “The correlation between race and family income, while strong, is not strong enough to permit the latter to function as a useful proxy for race in the pursuit of diversity.” I would highly suspect that any proxy serves as well as race does. Furthermore, if we are going to use a proxy – why not just use race?

As to your point about selective schools and race is this. If you want to deal with the problem of opportunities and knowing about elite institutions, then colleges need to spend more time advertising to families with fewer opportunities. I do know of the study you cited and I don’t question the validity of it. (But remember, its social science!) The question is not “helping” as much as it is creating a diverse environment on campus. It is the job of the college, not the courts, to determine what is this entity called diversity. Based on the number of perfect applicants admissions officers reject each year, I cannot help but think that no admissions officer thinks their job is as much about “helping” as it is about creating a diverse community.

Yes, critical mass may seem arbitrary and one could make an argument that it should be changed. But, my argument is that it should be the role of the colleges to decide such policies via affirmative action and the notion of diversity, not the courts. So, if you think it is unfair to lump people from disparate cultures and backgrounds, tell college admissions officers, and you think all these groups should be considered separately, fine. Eliminating race based affirmative action all together does the opposite – it prevents a realistic manifestation of diversity. (In response to the lack of Republicans, I think you miss two points. (1) I wonder how many people who self-identify as Republicans (and I think by Republicans, you are talking about people who associate with the Republican Party, as opposed to conservatives who might be so disillusioned with the party) actually apply to Amherst. (2) I wonder how many Republicans choose to matriculate. (3) The lack of Republicans, or at least the popular image of them, is a bigger problem than Amherst College. (4) There, I am sure, a fair number of free-market believers here and some libertarians. (5) Even if they feel marginalized, we in this country have narrowed the divisions among left-wing and liberal to be one category of “Democrat.” I suspect you would find many divisions among “Democrats” here.)

Furthermore, introductory economics courses barely discuss income inequality and I am not denying that we live in an unequal society. Unfortunately, you misunderstood my argument – I do not argue that race is a proxy for disadvantage. I argue that race is one component of the holistic compelling government interest in diversity. Yes, household income, wealth, social class – all of those are better ways to gauge disadvantage in the capitalist regime. But, I’m not convinced one should theorize colleges primarily as institutions of social mobility. Yes, they afford increased social, cultural, and human capital. But, for me, that is not the issue – the issue is the diversity at the college itself.

Look, if one could show that Asian-Americans as a group were being discriminated against via quotas (implicit or explicit, e.g. the 16% David described in his comment) or if an extreme burden was placed on them and that their increased presence at institutions of higher education would not harm the compelling interest for both the colleges and the governments, then pressure colleges to change their policies. But, ending race based affirmative action as unconstitutional is not a way of dealing with that problem.

I apologize for any typos in this response, it is late at night.