The Agenda

Stephen Hsu on Discrimination Against Asian American College Applicants

Stephen Hsu, a physicist at the University of Oregon, has written an op-ed for Bloomberg View on the persistence of discrimination against Asian American applicants at elite colleges and universities. After noting some of the suggestive evidence, e.g.:

Statistics seem to support the claim of bias across most of elite higher education. For example, in comprehensive data compiled as part of Duke University’s Campus Life and Learning project (as reported in a recent analysis by Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono and collaborators), Asian-Americans who enrolled at the school in 2001 averaged 1457 out of 1600 on the math and reading part of the SAT, compared with 1416 for whites, 1347 for Hispanics and 1275 for blacks.

and after offering the following caveat:

To be fair, most elite universities practice what is known as holistic admissions: Each candidate is evaluated on a variety of measures, including athletic and leadership activities in addition to academic performance. It is possible that the gap in academic average between Asian-American and white admitted students is compensated by gaps in the opposite direction on these other variables. Looking again at internal evaluations by Duke’s admissions office, we find Asian-Americans had higher averages than whites in the following categories: achievement, curriculum (each about one-third of a standard deviation) and letters of recommendation, while trailing very slightly (less than one-tenth of a standard deviation) in personal qualities.

Hsu presents his demand:

Any educational institution, public or private, that receives significant government support should be required to release aggregate admissions data of this kind, which includes information about ethnicity, legacy and athletic status, and all other variables of significant weight in the decision.

Transparency is essential to this important discussion, and the requirement could easily be mandated by the Department of Education. Why are admissions practices at a small number of universities that account for only tiny fraction of all U.S. undergraduates of such importance? For the simple reason that these universities are disproportionately responsible for producing future leaders, innovators, scientists and scholars. They are the stewards of some of the best human capital from around the world.

I am, as you might suspect, sympathetic to Hsu’s goals. Moreover, I’ve long believed that the Department of Education should mandate participation in longitudinal studies designed to determine the “value-added” of the education provided by colleges and universities that receive significant government support.

But I wonder if a better long-term solution might be to attack the prestige of the elite universities, i.e., to encourage the emergence of future leaders, innovators, scientists and scholars from institutions that are not quite as exclusive and (arguably) corrupt. The emergence of TED as an elite higher education brand, the establishment of the MITx credentialing initiative and Udacity (which Felix Salmon recently discussed with co-founder Sebastian Thrun), and the rise of the Florida Virtual School and Khan Academy in the K-12 space suggest that the next generation of bright students might be more willing to embrace alternative educational models, particularly if they intend to sort into professions that are less status-conscious and more attuned to what you can actually deliver.

Social networks will still be important, of course, but this could be a cross-cutting effect of the intergenerational transmission of human capital: going to an elite undergraduate school isn’t the only way to embed yourself in a network of high-achieving, ambitious young people, though of course it remains the most convenient one.  

Daniel Golden has also written about the Justice Department probe into discrimination against Asian Americans at Harvard and Princeton. My strong suspicion is that though I am an Asian American, I actually benefited from the kind of discrimination against Asian Americans that critics of Harvard and Princeton have in mind. That is, if many high-achieving Asian American applicants are being punished for their (perceived) non-academic qualities, I imagine that I was given an opportunity to attend selective schools on the basis of my (perceived) non-academic qualities. As a matter of public policy, however, I understand and am somewhat sympathetic to Hsu’s argument. My deeper concern is that there are costs associating with attempting to micromanage the admissions policies of existing colleges and universities, particularly ostensibly private colleges and universities, rather than investing time and energy in building alternative institutions.

Consider the following from George Packer’s surprisingly good profile of Peter Thiel (I say surprisingly because most treatments of Thiel in the left-of-center press have been embarrassments to the left-of-center press): 

Thiel thought about creating his own university, but he concluded that it would be too difficult to persuade parents to resist the prestige of the Ivies and Stanford. Then, last September, on a flight back from New York, he and Luke Nosek came up with the idea of giving fellowships to brilliant young people who would leave college and launch their own startups.

It is easy to see why Thiel took this route instead of pursuing the more capital-intensive option of building an elite undergraduate institution from scratch. But I suspect that it would be very valuable to try to build something like Vance Fried’s Better/Cheaper College, i.e., a moderately to highly selective institution that offers a high-quality undergraduate education at extremely low cost (he posits that CELS 3.2 would cost $6,705 per student relative to $22,483 at a traditional private bachelor’s college). 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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