When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

07 January 2007

Little Asia On The Hill

"Affirmative action," in the university setting, has traditionally meant making places in incoming freshman classes for disadvantaged minorities who might not have the same GPAs or test scores as other applicants, the argument being that this is necessary to level the playing field, create balance, and ensure diversity in university admissions after years of de facto and de jure racism.

Now, circumstances are forcing educators to ask some uncomfortable questions, one of which is, in the name of affirmative action, is it now necessary to actually hold some overachieving minorities back?

Check out the stats from the University of California system:

The revolution at Berkeley is a quiet one, a slow turning of the forces of immigration and demographics. What is troubling to some is that the big public school on the hill certainly does not look like the ethnic face of California, which is 12 percent Asian, more than twice the national average. But it is the new face of the state’s vaunted public university system. Asians make up the largest single ethnic group, 37 percent, at its nine undergraduate campuses.

The oft-cited goal of a public university is to be a microcosm — in this case, of the nation’s most populous, most demographically dynamic state — and to enrich the educational experience with a variety of cultures, economic backgrounds and viewpoints.

But 10 years after California passed Proposition 209, voting to eliminate racial preferences in the public sector, university administrators find such balance harder to attain. At the same time, affirmative action is being challenged on a number of new fronts, in court and at state ballot boxes. And elite colleges have recently come under attack for practicing it — specifically, for bypassing highly credentialed Asian applicants in favor of students of color with less stellar test scores and grades.

In California, the rise of the Asian campus, of the strict meritocracy, has come at the expense of historically underrepresented blacks and Hispanics. This year, in a class of 4809, there are only 100 black freshmen at the University of California at Los Angeles — the lowest number in 33 years. At Berkeley, 3.6 percent of freshmen are black, barely half the statewide proportion. (In 1997, just before the full force of Proposition 209 went into effect, the proportion of black freshmen matched the state population, 7 percent.) The percentage of Hispanic freshmen at Berkeley (11 percent) is not even a third of the state proportion (35 percent). White freshmen (29 percent) are also below the state average (44 percent).
Of course, no college admissions process is a pure meritocracy. If you're a good enough athlete applying to a school with a major sports program, basic literacy may not even be required of you, NCAA regulations notwithstanding; if you're a "legacy" (Mummy and/or Daddy went there before you), the university is more likely to admit you, with an eye on the family checkbook and the U's fundraising plans.

But the numbers in California (and elsewhere) speak for themselves; if you make college admissions meritocratic, then Asians will be admitted to the elite schools in disproportionate numbers, at the expense not only of minority groups traditionally viewed as being disadvantaged, but the presumably (by law) "advantaged" majority group as well:

Across the United States, at elite private and public universities, Asian enrollment is near an all-time high. Asian-Americans make up less than 5 percent of the population but typically make up 10 to 30 percent of students at the nation’s best colleges: in 2005, the last year with across-the-board numbers, Asians made up 24 percent of the undergraduate population at Carnegie Mellon and at Stanford, 27 percent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 14 percent at Yale and 13 percent at Princeton.

And according to advocates of race-neutral admissions policies, those numbers should be even higher.

Complex questions rarely have simple answers, but in this case, I think that the answer is actually pretty clear: admissions policies should be about ability and a track record of achievement and hard work, not your ethnic background; make college admissions completely race-neutral, and let the chips fall where they may.

And if that means that elite colleges have incoming classes that are 50% Asian (or even higher), that's fine: perhaps stripping away the "man behind the curtain" admissions manipulation will force us, as a culture, to confront some uncomfortable questions ourselves.

Stanford University psychology professor Hazel Markus thinks the reasons for Asian success are blindingly obvious:
As for the rise in Asian enrollment, the reason “isn’t a mystery,” Dr. Markus says. “This needs to come out and we shouldn’t hide it,” she says. “In Asian families, the No. 1 job of a child is to be a student. Being educated — that’s the most honorable thing you can do.”
And if you work hard and do well, you should get what's coming to you.

There are plenty of colleges and universities in this country (the vast majority of them, in fact) where second- or third-rate students can get themselves an education; no one has a right to a brand-name degree.

Times article referenced above: Little Asia On The Hill (New York Times, January 8, 2007)

No comments: