Affirmative Action

Study: Elite Colleges' Race-Conscious Admissions Discriminate Against Asian Applicants

Caltech doesn't practice affirmative action, and its Asian American student population has increased. Harvard, on the other hand...


Piyapong Thongcharoen / Dreamstime

In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, effectively barring all Chinese immigrants from entering the country. The ban did not come to an end until 1943.

Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), recalled this sad period of American history in her remarks at a National Press Club event in Washington, D.C., earlier this week. The event, which was co-hosted by CEO and the Federalist Society, highlighted a new CEO paper titled, "Too Many Asian Americans: Affirmative Discrimination in Elite College Admissions."

While not as obviously discriminatory as the Chinese Exclusion Act, race-conscious admissions policies often put Asian applicants at a disadvantage, since they would be overrepresented (relative to their share of the U.S. population) at many campuses absent deliberate efforts to admit more black and Latino students.

Asian Americans are over-performers in the education system: despite making up just 5 percent of the U.S. population, they represent "30% of the recent American maths and physics Olympiad teams and Presidential Scholars, and 25-30% of National Merit Scholarships," according to The Economist. When universities simply pick the most qualified students, Asian Americans are more likely than other groups to earn admission. When universities practice "holistic admissions"—a code word that indicates admissions officials are considering the racial background of the applicants in order to foster an ethnically diverse campus—Asian applicants need to score 140 more points on the SAT than white students in order to get in, according to research by Thomas Epanshade and Alexandria Radford.

The author of the new CEO paper, Althea Nagai, finds reason to be concerned about the impact of race-conscious admissions. She compared the percentages of Asian students at three elite private colleges: the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Caltech does not practice affirmative action; its Asian student population stands at 43 percent, having nearly doubled since 1990. MIT and Harvard, on the other hand, use race-conscious admissions in an attempt to achieve a racially diverse student body; consequently, the percentage of Asian students at both schools has remained relatively flat over the past two decades—26 percent at MIT, 17 percent at Harvard. Harvard, unlike MIT and CalTech, awards preferential admissions treatment to legacy applicants, which might explain why Asians constitute an even smaller percentage of Harvard's student body. Legacy preferences likely benefit white students, at the expense of minority applicants.

"So-called holistic admissions and diversity goals enable discrimination against Asian American applicants, much as the Harvard plan of the 1920s, also using holistic admissions, did against Jewish applicants," wrote Nagai.

The paper comes at a time when Harvard is facing a lawsuit for allegedly discriminating against Asian American applicants. Students for Fair Admissions, the advocacy group suing Harvard on behalf of Asian students who were rejected, recently persuaded a judge to compel the university to release some information relating to its admissions practices. More could be revealed at trial, according to The Harvard Crimson.

Chavez, who founded CEO in 1995, is both pro-immigration and anti-affirmative action—a combination that seems perfectly consistent to her as a conservative. And yet, in 2015, Chavez says she lost her gig as a pundit on Fox News after a producer claimed her pro-immigration conservativism was too "confusing" for viewers. That surprised Chavez, who had worked in the Reagan administration during the 1980s. Reagan, the political father of modern conservatism, was a supporter of immigration.