A Ceiling on Asian Student Enrollment at MIT and Harvard?

Ashley Thorne

NAS member Althea Nagai, a research fellow at the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), has published a new study analyzing racial discrimination in college admissions. The data point to a “ceiling” on the number of Asian American students colleges admit – particularly colleges that employ a “holistic” approach to admissions.

The report takes three private American universities as case studies: California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Harvard University.

Unlike MIT and Harvard, Caltech does not employ racial preferences because California’s Proposition 209 (drafted by NAS members in the 1990s) prohibits race preferences in university admissions. Nagai notes that at Caltech, the percentage of Asian American enrollment continued to increase, whereas at MIT and Harvard, Asian American enrollment stayed at or below the same percentages since the mid-1990s.

Nagai writes that “Asian Americans believe they are ‘the new Jews’—the racial group that today encounters a ceiling on their prospects for admission.” Many students now feel compelled to try to erase their Asian identity in their application essays in order to avoid hurting their college chances.

In the report, titled Too Many Asian Americans: Affirmative Discrimination in Elite College Admissions, Nagai also examines the findings of Princeton scholars Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford. Their book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, documented that elite colleges “admitted 77 percent of blacks with SAT scores ranging from 1400 to 1600; 48 percent of Hispanic applicants in that SAT range; and 40 percent of whites. The Asian American admission rate was much lower—30%.”

Currently, a group called Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard for discriminating against Asian American students in order to admit students of other races to advance the cause of “diversity.” Such discrimination, the group alleges, is enabled by the “holistic” approach in admissions, which takes into account non-academic factors such as race and ethnicity, with the intent “to accord disparate treatment on the basis of racial considerations.”

Nagai’s study presents an empirical basis for this case which could be applied to other colleges with similar practices.

The National Association of Scholars stands for equal opportunity in higher education – and against racial discrimination. Affirmative action purports to help minority students. But not only does affirmative action harm the prospects of the students it is supposed to help, it also injures the academically qualified students it excludes. It strips these students of educational and economic opportunities, it leads to stereotyping, and it prompts students to try to hide who they really are.

This report by Althea Nagai is a valuable contribution in the effort to help students of all races get a fair shot at the colleges for which they are qualified.   


Photo: Harvard Yard, Widener Library, preparations for inauguration of President Drew Faust by QuarterCircleS  // CC-BY-SA 4.0

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