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Determining Academic Merit

Colleges and universities today declare that they are committed to equity and diversity in admissions. The question is whether it's possible to simultaneously achieve that two-part objective. I was reminded of the daunting challenge in light of the history of Asian Americans and Jews in higher education in this country ("The New Jews," The Weekly Standard, Jun. 11). Their experience is uncannily similar.

As Jerome Karabel explained in The Chosen (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), the success of Jews on examinations at the turn of the last century was seen as a threat to the makeup of Ivy League schools. To protect the status quo, it was necessary to use measures other than strict academic merit. The solution was to put in place criteria for "character" and "leadership." Columbia, which is located in New York City where Jews were heavily concentrated, became the first to do so. Harvard followed ("Late Admissions," The New Republic, Dec. 26, 2005).

Although anti-Semitism has nothing to do with equity and diversity, the net effect on highly qualified students is identical. Only this time, the group in question is Asian Americans - not Jews. The former outperform all other groups in academic achievement. The average SAT score for them was 1636 in 2010, the last year that data were available. This compares with 1580 for Caucasians, 1369 for Mexican Americans, and 1277 for African Americans.

I agree that SAT scores do not reflect the totality of a student's intellectual capacity, but they do serve as a rough proxy. Therefore, if Asian Americans were admitted strictly on the basis of their SAT and their GPA, they would be over represented in elite schools. For example, when California outlawed racial preferences in admissions, the percentage of Asian Americans accepted at Berkeley rose from 34.6 percent in 1997, the last year of legal affirmative action, to 42 percent in the fall 2006. This shows that they were unfairly penalized in the past.

Nevertheless, it's a mistake to think of Asian Americans as a monolith. There are blatant disparities among them ("Asian-American situation more varied than reported," The Progressive, Jul. 3). It is seen in the six largest Asian subgroups: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and Indian. But it is even more glaring in the remaining ethnic groups that come under the Asian umbrella. For example, more than 50 percent of Cambodian, Hmong and Laotians have less than a high school education, according to the 2000 census. This compares with 19.6 percent of Caucasians.

Admissions officers correctly argue that part of the education students receive comes from interaction with classmates from different backgrounds and cultures. If they were forced to base their decisions solely on quantifiable academic data, they would be severely handicapped in their ability to craft their freshmen classes. That's why they stress equity and diversity. But these twin goals may be banned altogether when the U.S. Supreme Court this fall hears a case brought by a Caucasian student who claims she was rejected by the University of Texas because of her race.

If she wins and racial preferences are totally thrown out, then Asian Americans will no longer have to continue to clear a higher bar than other groups. The irony, of course, is that when affirmative action began in the late 1960s, it gave Asian Americans a boost, as well as African Americans and Hispanics.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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