What If Colleges Used to Discriminate Against Asian American Applicants?

New study suggests that top colleges perhaps used to discriminate against Asian Americans, but they may have abandoned the practice.

May 2, 2022
Four Asian students in a library
(Getty Images)

The Manhattan Institute’s conservative scholars are known for opposing affirmative action. So its new report being released today, “Racial Preferences on Campus: Trends in Asian Enrollment at U.S. Colleges,” by an institute fellow, Robert VerBruggen, might sound like the latest critique of the students elite colleges are admitting and rejecting.

But VerBruggen’s thesis is about past discrimination, not current discrimination.

“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,” he wrote.

He added, “These are, to be clear, descriptive exercises using less-than-perfect data, and they do not prove discrimination at any specific school. But they are certainly 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.”

The issue of discrimination is of course central to the cases the Supreme Court will hear this fall on affirmative action and whether the way it is practiced at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hurts Asian and white applicants.

The paper starts out by asking the question “What should we expect Asian enrollment trends to look like?”

“First, they are a small but quickly growing share of the college-age population, accounting for roughly 3 percent of American 18- to 22-year-olds in 1990 but 6 percent by 2020,” VerBruggen wrote. “And second, as a group, Asian-Americans measurably outperform other demographic groups on numerous academic metrics. On average, Asian students get higher [grades], score higher on standardized tests, and even report longer study hours than do students from other racial and ethnic groups.”

Take test scores, for example. The report notes that “in 2019, for example, Asian SAT-takers scored an average of 637 on math and 586 on reading and writing; the averages for all test-takers were 528 and 531, respectively … In statistical terms, the standard deviation of each SAT test is about 100, so the difference is roughly one standard deviation for math and just half a standard deviation for reading and writing.”

The math portion of the SAT “has a particularly large gap between Asians and other students, and in 2017, a 750 math score would have put a student above the 25th percentile at nearly every college in the country that reported its SAT distribution to the federal government … This shows how a small minority group can constitute an outright majority of some highly selected subsets of the population.”

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At the same time Asians were doing so well on the SAT (and other measures used by colleges, including grades and students’ reports on their time spent on homework), they were increasing as a share of the population, the report noted.

In terms of enrollments, “in the early 1990s, the reported Asian share at [competitive colleges] increased remarkably quickly. (Interestingly, this period came on the heels of a largely forgotten series of scandals involving claims of anti-Asian discrimination in the mid-to-late 1980s, allegations that set off an internal probe at Stanford University, as well as Education Department investigations of Harvard, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Berkeley.)”

After that, “these schools’ shares of Asian students appeared to hit a ceiling, holding roughly steady for the next 10 to 15 years. Yet they then crept upward again, with the renewed increase especially pronounced in the Ivy League. The timing roughly coincides with the new burst of attention given to the problem.”

Whether the gains shown below will quiet those who argue that Asians suffer from discrimination remains to be seen, but VerBruggen’s argument has the potential to upset those on both sides of the Supreme Court case.

Chart titled Asian Share at Eight Categories of Colleges. The categories are Ivy, military, and others numbered 1 to 6.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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