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Thursday, June 11, 2015

College Is Not a Theater

Should colleges care about the skin tone of applicants?

Starting back in the 1970s, officials at America’s more selective colleges and universities began using racial preferences to increase the percentages of certain minority group students on campus. Preferences for certain groups, however, also means preferences against others. 

Early in the last century, some of the top universities had a quota for Jewish students. Harvard, for example, capped their number because officials didn’t want to risk upsetting Boston traditionalists who might be disturbed to see Harvard become “too Jewish.” It didn’t matter that many of the Jewish students were academically superior to other applicants — officials just didn’t want to have too many.

These days, the un-preferred group is students of Asian ancestry. Rather than merely accepting that as their sacrifice for good educational policy, many Asian-Americans (how distressing is the imperative of putting individuals into hyphenated groups!) are now battling against the double standards that make it much harder for them to gain admission into the nation’s most prestigious schools.

A recent Wall Street Journal piece, Harvard’s Chinese Exclusion Act by Kate Bachelder, was based on an interview she did with Chinese immigrant and successful Florida businessman Yukong Zhao. Mr. Zhao argues that Harvard and other top universities hold Asian students to significantly higher standards to keep them from growing as a percentage of student bodies. 

The old “too Jewish” fear has been replaced by a new one — becoming “too Asian.”

Mr. Zhao is among the people advocating that the Education Department investigate  Harvard’s admission policies. Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, educational institutions that receive any federal money are obligated to treat individuals equally, regardless of race or other immutable characteristics. You can read the complaint filed by Students for Fair Admissions here.

Can a university be in compliance with the law when “an Asian-American student must earn an SAT scores 140 points higher than a white student, 270 points higher than a Hispanic and 450 points higher than an African-American” to have an equal chance at admission? Zhao and quite a few legal scholars think not. 

He maintains that this is a civil rights issue and adds, “College is not a theater.” Students shouldn’t be chosen because they have the right ancestry to play parts in a play. They should be chosen on the basis of their desire and ability to learn.

Even though the percentage of Asians in the population has been growing, the percentage admitted to Harvard has remained almost unchanged for many years. That strongly suggests a quota policy, which hardly seems to comport with the law.

It’s very revealing that at another of America’s elite universities, Cal Tech, the percentage of Asian students has steadily risen, from 26 percent in 1993 to 42.5 percent today. Cal Tech is notable for not playing the “diversity” game with admissions and admitting students just based on their evident academic strength, not on their race or ethnicity. 

I wish Students for Fair Admissions success in their legal efforts. However, Harvard can spend vast amounts in fighting the suit, which will eventually come up against the well-entrenched beliefs in the bureaucracy and judiciary that universities ought to be allowed to use “holistic” (read: subjective) admissions policies so as to craft a student body that is optimally “diverse.” 

Defeating racial preferences in court is very iffy, as we’ve seen with the Fisher case. 

Therefore, I think that they, Zhao, and all others who want to stop the discrimination against Asian students should also argue that Harvard and other top universities ought to stop doing so for educational reasons. Even if they are stymied in the legal system, they might succeed in pressuring those universities into dropping a practice they adopted without thinking through its adverse consequences.

The plain truth about racial preferences is that they mean turning away some of your strongest applicants and replacing them with students who are academically weaker. Doing that makes administrators feel good, but it downgrades the school.

I first heard that argument when I read Thomas Sowell’s 1993 book Inside American Education: The Decline, The Deception, The Dogmas. He attacked the notion, as prevalent then as now, that by using “holistic” evaluations, admissions officers can assemble a superior student body — one more “rich and interesting” than if the school just admitted students based on their academic qualities. Sowell wrote:

What will look ‘rich and interesting’ to superficial people can of course differ greatly from what scholars who are masters of their respective intellectual disciplines will find to be students able to plumb the depths of what they have to offer. Dull-looking nerds can revolutionize the intellectual landscape and produce marvels of science, even if their life stories would never make a good movie or television mini-series.

That is exactly the case regarding many of America’s highly driven students of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and other backgrounds. They are rejected at top institutions like Harvard that think they already have “enough” of them. But if they matriculated, they would not only advance most rapidly, but probably also bring more fame to the school.

In that regard, Zhao cites a Kauffman Foundation study finding that between 2006 and 2012, 42 percent of all technology startups were begun by Asian-American entrepreneurs.

You might think that trustees and alumni would demand to know why their school leaders persist in the dubious diversity mania instead of trying to recruit the best students. They should not just meekly sit by and allow racial preferences to impede their schools from excelling. How about an alumni petition to the president of Harvard saying, “Why can’t we be more like Cal Tech?”

Although it is repeatedly asserted, there is no reason to believe that admitting quotas of students from “underrepresented” groups actually does anything to improve the learning climate on campus. 

On the contrary, it can degrade the learning climate when administrators feel compelled to make allowances for weaker students. That is the case at the University of Wisconsin, where administrators want faculty members in certain introductory courses to ensure that grades are distributed “equitably.” (Professor Lee Hansen has written about that for the Pope Center here.)

I am delighted to see that Asian-Americans (that awful hyphen again) are speaking out against racial preferences. That stands to reason, since their children are the big losers in the racial preferences game.

But they should be joined by non-Asians who understand that the purpose of college is for students to maximize their learning, not for administrators to play at social engineering.

This post first appeared at the Pope Center.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.