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One of the most unpleasant aspects of debate over Affirmative Action is the maddening suggestion that criticisms of preference systems are attempting to impose “formulas.” A pure example of this can be found in comments by Siddique at the Campus Progress blog

The core problem with Li’s complaint is that he seems to believe that there’s some sort of formula by which elite universities should admit people. It seems like he’s putting forth an argument that he should have been admitted because of his “qualifications,” but wasn’t because of his race. But there are no specific “qualifications” that Princeton (or other universities of its kind) look for in applicants, and the University makes this clear. If courts were sane, this challenge wouldn’t go very far.
 Li is exactly correct. Based upon figures available, there is an exceedingly obvious formula used by universities when it comes to race – one that harms Asian students more than any others. Schools differ, but data on admitted students reliably reveals lower test performance for Blacks and Hispanics than White and Asian students admitted. Consider data from the University of Michigan (in Inside Higher Education): 
    • The SAT median for black students admitted to Michigan’s main undergraduate college was 1160 in 2005, compared to 1260 for Hispanics, 1350 for whites and 1400 for Asians. High school grade point averages were 3.4 for black applicants, 3.6 for Hispanics, 3.8 for Asians, and 3.9 for whites.
    • Black and Hispanic applicants in 2005 with a 1240 SAT and a 3.2 GPA had a 9 in 10 chance of getting in — while white and Asian applicants with the same scores had a 1 in 10 chance of getting in.
    • For undergraduates in the most recent year for which data are available (2004), 28 percent of black students had been on academic probation at some point in their Michigan careers, compared to 23 percent of Hispanic students, 8 percent of Asian students, and 5 percent of white students.
    • Similar patterns hold for law and medical school admissions. In the latter, for example, the data indicate that of applicants with an MCAT total of 41 and a GPA of 3.6 in college science courses, admit rates were 74 percent for black applicants, 43 percent for Hispanic applicants, 12 percent for white applicants and 6 percent for Asian applicants.
 Similar patterns invariably appear in data on admissions. Of course elite colleges don’t base their admissions decisions merely upon test scores. Undoubtedly there are other factors that justify many admissions with lower test-scores and GPAs, including race. Defenders of affirmative action often argue for explicit preferences, but when confronted with challenges, insist that their opponents are attacking a nuanced and subjective system.

Another poster at the blog makes an obvious point: 

While it’s true that many applicants with perfect SAT’s don’t get in to Princeton, I’d be willing to bet that virtually all the black applicants to Princeton with perfect SAT’s do get in. Ergo, while Li’s contention that he was discriminated against for being Asian is bogus, if he were to simply rephrase that as a hypothetical “If I were black and had the same application I would have gotten in–or to perhaps choose a more relevant scenario, if my grandparents had immigrated to Chile instead of the US from China and then my parents moved here, so I could claim that I’m ‘Latino’ I would have gotten in,” would, in fact, be true.

As a supporter of affirmative action I can come up with plenty of arguments as to why it’s OK that some highly qualified Asian-Ameircan students may end up at say Cornell instead of Princeton and why this doesn’t hurt them, but the greater diversity is good for Princeton. But I do think we should not pretend that this isn’t actually the case when it clearly is.

 Finally, it’s undeniable, on purely racial terms, that Li and certain other Asians are the worst-situated to gain entrance to elite colleges. They’re not a preferred minority group. They infrequently gain sports scholarships. They infrequently have alumni parents . No one can deny that they’re, well, kind of screwed.


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