Politics & Policy

What Ivy League Affirmative Action Really Looks Like — from the Inside

Asian Americans have finally had enough. They’re tired of working harder, achieving more academically, then having that held against them as they try to fulfill their educational dreams in our nation’s most elite universities. To gain entry into top private schools such as Harvard or the best public schools such as the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, no one has to do better than Americans of Chinese or Japanese or Korean descent. To make room for black, Latino, and — yes — white students, deserving Asian Americans are pushed aside. And they’re tired of it.

So last week a coalition of more than 60 Asian-American groups filed complaints with the Department of Justice and Department of Education, alleging systematic racial discrimination in college admissions. They’re right, of course. Colleges do systematically disadvantage Asian students, and the problem is worse than they imagine. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

Years ago, before I became a full-time constitutional lawyer, I taught at Cornell Law School — an Ivy League school and one of the top law schools in the country. My second year on the faculty, I served on the admissions committee, and I saw firsthand how not just race but ideology distorts the admissions process. Ivy League admissions are one part meritocracy — the students are quite bright — and one part ideological engineering. And if Americans broadly understood how the process works, support for affirmative action would diminish even further.

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First, few people understand how dramatic the boost is for favored minority groups. If students were black or the “right” kind of Latino, they would often receive admissions offers with test scores 20 or 30 percentile points lower than those of white or Asian students. When I expressed concern about an admissions offer to a black student with test scores in the 70th percentile — after we’d passed over white and Asian students with scores in the 98th percentile and far higher grades — I was told that we had to offer admission or we’d surely lose him to our Ivy League rivals.

Second, these dramatic breaks rarely go to poor kids who are overcoming the challenges of ghetto schools. Many Americans, myself included, understand it is a real and substantial achievement — one that can’t be measured in test scores — to overcome extreme poverty and America’s worst public schools to compete with students from far more prosperous backgrounds. But the same reasoning doesn’t apply to the children of doctors and lawyers. Yet they get dramatic advantages as well. In fact, unless admissions committees gave rich black and Latino kids dramatic advantages, they wouldn’t be able to hit their diversity targets. At the Ivy League level, affirmative action is an enhanced-opportunity program for favored rich kids.

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Third, affirmative action isn’t necessarily for every black or Latino applicant. Cuban Americans often get less help. African students get less help. And, worst of all, there are times when admissions committees will actually ideologically cleanse the minority applicant pool of minorities who are seen as “less diverse” because of expressed interest in “white” professions such as, say, investment banking. If you’re a Mexican American who writes an admissions essay about defending the rights of migrant farm workers, you’re a dream candidate. If you’re a black candidate who aspires to work for Goldman Sachs, you’re “less diverse” (these are real-life examples, by the way).

Like-minded admissions committees admit like-minded students while marinating in the ‘soft bigotry of lower expectations.’

The ideological cleansing also happens to white candidates. In one of the most memorable incidents, the committee almost rejected an extraordinarily qualified applicant because of his obvious Christian faith (he’d attended a Christian college, a conservative seminary, and worked for religious conservative causes). In writing, committee members questioned whether they wanted his “Bible-thumping” or “God-squadding” on campus. I objected, noting that my own background was even more conservative. To their credit, the committee members apologized and offered him admission.

It was sobering to see the immense achievement gap between most of the black and Latino applicants and their white and especially Asian counterparts. But I couldn’t help but think that part of that gap was due to the well-known lowered expectations for favored minorities. Even achievement-oriented students tend to work hard enough to accomplish their goals — and no harder. Why tell the best and brightest black and Latino students that they don’t have to do as well, that they can take their foot off the accelerator and still attend the best schools?

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Like-minded admissions committees admit like-minded students while marinating in the “soft bigotry of lower expectations.” During my one year on the committee, I did what I could to try to introduce a different perspective, but I felt as if I were fighting a raging fire with a garden hose.

In the interests of full disclosure: My youngest daughter is black, adopted from Ethiopia. The last thing I want to see is her placed in a school where she’s not equipped to compete and succeed. I love her too much to see her well-being sacrificed so an academic liberal — no matter how well-intentioned — can meet a quota.


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