The Proof Is in the Data

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 5/1


At the beginning of the year, I wrote to you about the Supreme Court’s announcement that it would hear challenges to the admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The Supreme Court’s decision in the combined case, which will come sometime in the 2022-2023 term, has the potential to reverse the legal precedent that has propped up discriminatory racial preferences in higher education for nearly fifty years. 

The claims against both universities were brought forward in 2014 by the organization Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which alleged that the schools had engaged in intentional discrimination against Asian-American applicants for decades. According to SFFA, the discrimination is the direct result of preferential admissions policies that seek to increase the proportion of “underrepresented minorities” on campus. 

Although Asian Americans are a minority, at 7% of the total U.S. population in 2021, they are not an underrepresented minority in higher education—in other words, their minority status earns them no political favors and does not save them from being culled by advocates of racial balancing. 

Education administrators make little effort to conceal their anti-Asian bias. Just a few weeks ago, a San Diego school district superintendent tried to attribute the good performance of Asian students in the district to their supposed wealth (read: privilege), stating that “people who are able to make the journey to America are wealthy.” And last year, a school board member in Virginia’s Fairfax County admitted that there had been “an anti asian [sic] feel” underlying controversial changes to the admissions policy at the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. 

Colleges and universities tend to be more opaque about their admissions processes and the extent to which race guides admissions decisions. Administrators at elite universities rarely talk about their discrimination against Asian Americans (though they are all too eager to talk about their “diverse” student bodies). Instead, the proof of discrimination appears in the data—more specifically, the years of admissions and enrollment data that reveal consistently higher standards for Asian-American admits than for those from other demographics. 

Last week, the Manhattan Institute released a report that tracks Asian enrollment at American universities over the course of thirty years. The report suggests that elite schools in particular have sought to limit the number of Asian Americans on campus in order to achieve racial balancing. As stated in the executive summary: 

Proving discrimination at a specific school is an arduous task, requiring access to private, detailed admissions records.…But this report takes a step back and focuses on a question that is both simpler and broader: As the Asian-American population in the U.S. has risen dramatically over the past 30 years, how has Asian enrollment fared at different types of colleges? 

…at most types of schools, a predictable pattern emerges: As the Asian share of the college-age population rose, so did the Asian share at these colleges, with the growth most pronounced at the most selective schools. At the very top schools, however, an odd pattern emerged. The percentage of Asian enrollment stagnated around the mid-1990s but then began to grow again around 2010, with the exact patterns shifting slightly depending on how the numbers are calculated. [These results are] consistent with claims that elite schools in general worked to limit the number of Asian students admitted in order to avoid overly skewing their campuses’ racial balances—and perhaps backed away from this practice as the Harvard lawsuits and other efforts drew attention to the allegations.

Though noteworthy, the increase in Asian-American enrollment post-2010 shouldn’t be taken as a sign that university administrators have repented of their ways. More likely, they have made a strategic decision to temporarily tone down the discrimination in light of the increased scrutiny—or they have simply become more adept at hiding the evidence (unlike their compatriots on the public school boards). 

Let’s hope that the Supreme Court’s decision in the SFFA case next year brings an end to the question by prohibiting racial preferences in higher education once and for all. 

Until next week.

P. S. Last week, Alexander Riley, professor of sociology at Bucknell University and head of the NAS Pennsylvania affiliate, posted a transcript of his interview with NAS board member Amy Wax on his Substack, All Things Rhapsodical. Both the interview and Dr. Riley’s Substack are highly worth reading.


CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Emmanuel Offei, Public Domain

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