Regulatory Policy

Asian-American Ivy League Applicants Can Trust Markets More Than Courts

Students and pedestrians walk through the Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., March 10, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Universities that choose to discriminate against certain applicants will get worse over time.

America’s top colleges trumpet their commitment to racial equity, but if you’re a hard-working, high-achieving Asian-American student, you’re probably vexed about the discrimination you face when applying to many colleges. One 2009 study of ten elite schools found that, after controlling for key observable attributes of applicants, Asian-American SAT scores (on a scale of 1600) had to be 140 points higher than those of white applicants and 450 points higher than those of African-American applicants to have the same chances of acceptance. More recently, a careful study of Harvard’s admissions record (employing richer data on applicants’ characteristics) found that Asian-Americans were 19 percent less likely to be accepted than similarly qualified whites.

Unfortunately, our legal system seems to offer no remedy. In 2015, Asian-American plaintiffs lost a discrimination case against Princeton. Last November, a federal appeals court affirmed a lower-court decision that Harvard’s use of race in admissions was permissible because it did not constitute a “racial quota” (though plaintiffs promise to appeal to the Supreme Court). This month, the Department of Justice dropped a discrimination lawsuit against Yale that it had filed just before the last election. And though voters in some states soundly defeated efforts to overturn laws aimed at race-neutral college admissions, many institutions are discarding the SAT and ACT tests in admissions decisions — whether to be “more holistic” or to better disguise penalties and advantages for various applicants, depending on your point of view.

But there is a powerful remedy for discriminatory conduct apart from law or politics: Market competition is an enduring and reliable force for justice. One famous example occurred 75 years ago, as big-league baseball spring training camps opened and included their first black player, Jackie Robinson.

From the late 1880s until 1946, organized baseball was lily-white. Employment discrimination was legal in the U.S. and would remain so for almost two more decades, but competitive forces in sports were starting to undermine it. Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, looking for a way to best his more successful New York rivals, the Yankees and Giants, saw opportunity in the abundant talent that a “gentlemen’s agreement” among team owners had consigned to separate Negro Leagues.

After a year in the minor leagues at Montreal, Robinson ascended to the majors in 1947 and immediately led the Dodgers to a pennant — and five more before retiring. But his mark on both the sport and society was even more profound. Seeing how the Dodgers had won a competitive advantage by overcoming prejudice, their rivals hastened to imitate them. By the late 1960s, baseball was well integrated and there was little evidence of salary discrimination against black players. Further, some argue, Robinson’s courageous performance and undeniable success hastened desegregation in many other fields.

In higher education, something similar took place at roughly the same time. Between the World Wars, many Ivy League schools employed rigid admissions quotas. A Yale medical school dean once decreed “never admit more than five Jews . . . two Italian Catholics . . . no blacks at all.” Harvard devised an admissions process (stressing “geographic diversity” and “character”) that reduced its Jewish enrollment from 25 percent to about 10 percent by the ’30s.

But as excluded Jewish students and faculty gravitated to rival schools and enhanced their prestige, some of the gentlemen in academe took note. Brandeis University, founded in 1948 to become the “Harvard of the Jews,” attracted stars such as Leonard Bernstein and Herbert Marcuse to its faculty. As it and other competitors rose, Harvard and other Ivies were forced to reverse course. Today, Jews represent less than 3 percent of the nation’s population but staff 9 percent of university faculties and 17 percent of those at top-ranked institutions.

If Asians are, for whatever reason, the academy’s “new Jews,” the good news is that market pressures are present even in this context, and there are some institutions primed to play the role of the Brooklyn Dodgers or Brandeis.

A prime example is the California Institute of Technology, which is highly meritocratic in its admissions policies. As Asian-Americans have encountered admissions barriers at other elite schools, they now are 43 percent of Caltech’s student body. But Caltech’s failure to pursue demographic “balance” hasn’t harmed its international reputation: The Times Higher Education’s 2020 rankings rated it second in the world — ahead of Harvard (seventh) and every other Ivy. A decade ago, Harvard and Caltech were ranked first and second respectively. Employers have caught on: According to PayScale, early career earnings for alumni of Caltech exceed those for Harvard by 16 percent.

What’s more, the Jackie Robinson effect is at work even though the legal system may not be. Though Princeton was victorious in its 2015 discrimination case, its Class of ’24 is 25 percent Asian-American, up from 14 percent a little over a decade ago — and it has moved ahead of Harvard to sixth in the world rankings. Whether because of competitive or legal pressure, Harvard’s admission rate of Asians has trended upward recently, and at a sharp pace. Some 25 percent of the class of 2023 is Asian-American; Yale’s Asian-American enrollment is up from 10 percent to 17 percent, and it is up from tenth a decade ago. Outside the Ivy League, at schools such as Duke, Rice, Carnegie-Mellon, and Georgia Tech, proportions of Asian-American students exceed 20 percent and have increased by at least five percentage points in the last decade. It is easy to think that other rivals will join right in.

That’s the way markets work to penalize bias and reward virtue: Schools that become excessively devoted to identity politics and underweight merit will find their competition gaining on them. Rankings will shift and applicant enthusiasm and alumni support will wax or wane accordingly. In response, all are likely to do a better job shedding their biases — or those that do not will struggle until they see the error of their ways.


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