us education system

Who’s taking college spots from top Asian Americans? Not other racial minorities but rich whites

Colleges have another major affirmative action effort – lower admission standards for applicants whose parents are alumni or major donors.

More than a decade ago, I chatted with Asian-American seniors at Hunter College High School in New York City about their college admission prospects. One young woman told me she had scored 1530 out of a maximum 1600 on the SAT. When I congratulated her, she said that her score was what she and her friends called “an Asian fail.” She predicted it wouldn’t be enough to get into her dream school, Yale. She was right. The next day, she learned that Yale had rejected her.

I remembered our conversation when I read last week that the Justice Department plans to investigate a complaint by Asian-American organisations that Harvard discriminates against them by giving an edge to other racial minorities. My immediate response was: right victim, wrong culprit.

Asian Americans are indeed treated unfairly in admissions, but affirmative action is a convenient scapegoat for those who seek to pit minority groups against each other. A more logical target would be “the preferences of privilege,” as I called them in my 2006 book, The Price of Admission.

These policies elevate predominantly white, affluent applicants: children of alumni, big non-alumni donors, politicians and celebrities, as well as recruited athletes in upper-crust sports like golf, sailing, horseback riding, crew and even, at some colleges, polo. The number of whites enjoying the preferences of privilege, I concluded, outweighed the number of minorities aided by affirmative action.

By giving more slots to already advantaged students, these preferences displace more deserving candidates from other backgrounds, including Asian Americans and middle-class whites, without achieving the goals of affirmative action, such as diversity and redressing historical discrimination.

‘The new Jews’

Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has become the poster boy for this practice. As I reported in my book, Harvard accepted Kushner soon after receiving a $2.5 million pledge from his father, a real-estate developer and New York University graduate. While sources at Kushner’s high school told me that he wasn’t near the top of his class and didn’t always take the most challenging courses, a spokeswoman for Kushner Companies has described him as “an excellent student” and denied that his father’s gift was intended to improve his chances of admission.

In my book, I described Asian Americans as “the new Jews.” Like Jews before the 1960s, whose Ivy League enrollment was restricted by quotas, Asian Americans are over-represented at selective colleges compared with their US population, but are shortchanged relative to their academic performance.

Much as Ivy League administrators once justified anti-Jewish policies with ethnic stereotypes, so Asian Americans, I found, were typecast in college admissions offices. Asked why the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had turned down one high-achieving Korean-American youth, the then dean of admissions told me it was possible that he “looked like a thousand other Korean kids with the exact same profile of grades and activities and temperament. My guess is that he just wasn’t involved or interesting enough to surface to the top.”

My research indicated that college admissions officers tended to compare stellar Asian-American candidates to each other, rather than to the rest of the applicant pool. The result at some universities amounted to an informal quota system, with the percentage of Asian Americans admitted as freshman changing little from year to year. The proportion at Harvard, which long hovered below 20%, reached 22.2% for the class of 2021. Who takes the places of the spurned Asians? As far back as 1990, an investigation of Harvard by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights pointed to recipients of so-called “white affirmative action.”

Harvard admitted Asian-American applicants “at a significantly lower rate than white applicants” despite their “slightly stronger” SAT scores and grades, it found. Accounting for most of the admissions gap was “preference given to legacies and recruited athletes – groups that are predominantly white.” In that era, Asian Americans composed 15.7% of all Harvard applicants but only 3.5% of alumni children and 4.1% of recruited athletes.

Small club

Unlike affirmative action, the preferences of privilege aren’t inherently race-based, which makes it tougher to challenge them legally.

When I was researching my book in the early 2000s, several admissions deans assured me that the ranks of alumni children would become more diverse in future as the children of minorities who gained access to elite universities with the advent of affirmative action attained college age. But that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Based on a Harvard Crimson survey of freshmen entering Harvard in 2016, legacies remain a largely homogeneous group. They made up 15% of the student body, but 26.6% of those whose parents had a combined annual income of $500,000 or more. Of freshmen who identified themselves as white, 35% said that a family member had gone to Harvard as an undergraduate. Two-thirds of students whose parents had a combined annual income of more than $500,000 said that family members had attended Harvard.

Meanwhile, the practice of giving admissions breaks to children of current or prospective donors has only intensified. With other sources of revenue failing to keep pace with costs – the pace of tuition increases is declining, as is the percentage of alumni who donate to the country’s top 20 schools – universities are more dependent than ever on major givers, and thus under more pressure to accept their children. In 2015 alone, seven individuals made gifts of more than $100 million apiece to higher education, including one bequest.

“Recognising that the market is more competitive and that we’re constrained in our ability to raise prices, we are going to be more dependent on philanthropy,” Donald Heller, provost and vice president of academic affairs at the University of San Francisco, told me last fall. “That means there’s probably more pressure on admissions offices around legacies and development admits” – applicants recommended by the development (ie, fundraising) office.

In an era of widening economic and social inequity, and of backlash against minority groups, the way to open more slots for outstanding Asian-American applicants is not to ban affirmative action. A better approach for eliminating the “Asian fail” is to curtail preferences for rich whites.

This story was co-published with Bloomberg View.

This article first appeared on ProPublica.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.

Play

The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.