The United States Supreme Court will decide sometime in the spring of 2013 whether public universities can continue to consider race as a factor in admissions decisions. The challenge to affirmative action policies that provide a boost in the admissions process to African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, among others, will be heard by a Supreme Court which is slightly different in composition from the nine members of the court who affirmed such policies by a 5-4 vote in 2003, when considering the admissions policies of the University of Michigan Law School. At that time, the Court ruled that racial and ethnic preferences were allowable to promote “diversity” in the student body of public universities, since it was judged to be in the interest of both minority applicants and other students as well, especially given the rapid changes in the nation’s demographic makeup. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, ruling for the majority, also argued that perhaps in 25 years, such programs no longer would be necessary.
Three of the four justices who opposed the University of Michigan’s affirmative action plan are still on the court (Kennedy, Thomas and Scalia), and Justices Roberts and Alito, two members appointed by President George W. Bush, are expected to be opposed to such programs in the current case. There is therefore a decent chance that such programs might end in public universities ten years after the Michigan case, not 25.
The use of admissions programs that favor racial or ethnic minorities inevitably result in fewer admissions for non-favored groups. While affirmative action today aims at assuring a minimum level of spots for specific minority groups, in the past, use of numerical formulas or goals in admissions policies, particularly among elite private universities, have been designed to limit the number of students from other minority groups, especially Jewish applicants, for much of the first half of the 20th century and perhaps for a decade after that.
Today, it appears that the maximum quota on group shares in universities is no longer a factor with Jews, but with Asians, sometimes referred to as the “new Jews," given their academic prowess, and drive to succeed academically.
A new lengthy article by Ron Unz, a successful Jewish Harvard alumnus, makes a very strong case that the Ivy League schools, eight of America’s most competitive universities — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Brown — are now all actively conspiring to limit the number of Asian-Americans in their undergraduate student body.
Unz argues that these eight schools, plus a handful of others (such as Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) continue to play a wildly disproportionate role in advancing their graduates into power positions in American society — law, medicine, finance, technology, and top corporate jobs. As a result of the artificial constraints on the number of Asians who are admitted to these schools, Unz argues that Asians are being limited in their chance to climb to the top of American institutions.
The evidence Unz lays out is convincing. There appears to be a ceiling of around 16 percent of the spots in an entering class at the most elite universities that is available to Asian applicants. If test scores, grades, and extracurricular activities were considered objectively by these schools’ admission committees, with no minimum or maximum share for any group, Unz argues that this might result in Asians filling many more spots. At universities that appear to have more objective (strictly merit-based) admissions programs — some of the top state universities among them — Asians make up a far higher share of the entering classes than at the Ivy League schools. Over the last 15 years, as the Asian share of the U.S. population has grown rapidly, so has their share of applications to top schools. But the percentage share for Asians in the entering classes at the eight Ivy League schools has dropped by 3-5% per school over the last 15 years.
If this were Unz’s only argument, this article would merely serve as the most detailed depiction of the Asian quota that many others have talked about or complained about. The anger over maximum levels for Asian admissions is occurring at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult for any applicant to get into the top schools. Several of the Ivy league schools now admit only 6-7% of applicants, and none of them admits as many as 20%. There is a perverse logic in play — that the tougher it is to get admitted to these schools, the more students (and their parents) want that thick acceptance envelope from such a university for the prestige it bestows upon the recipient and his or her family.
But Unz also introduces a theme that has not been explored before in any of the college admission arguments — namely that Jews are now the beneficiaries of favorable admission decisions at the Ivy League universities, a conclusion that has potentially toxic overtones in the wrong hands.
Unz argues that the elite universities are admitting African American and Hispanic applicants who would never get in except for their skin color or ethnicity, given their well below average academic credentials compared to the rest of the applicant pool. Unz does not argue that Jewish applicants are poor students. He provides evidence that at universities that are ethnicity-blind (the California Institute of Technology, for the most part the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the top California state universities), Jews are still admitted (and deserve to be admitted) in multiples of their share of the population (5-10% of the student bodies, compared to a much lower Jewish population share).
But Unz maintains that at the Ivy League schools, the Jewish numbers are too high to be explained on the basis of merit. In fact, Unz says Jews are no longer the number one standout group academically, that that title clearly belongs to Asians. Unz provides data showing that the percentage of Jews in the Ivy League schools ranges from 10-15% at Dartmouth and Princeton, to over 20% at the other six, and over 25% at Yale. He claims that these shares cannot be explained on merit alone. In fact, Unz argues that Jewish achievement, as measured by the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, the Intel science competition, and various math competitions, has declined and that Asians now routinely outperform Jews by these measures. So why, Unz asks, are Jews filling 25% of the spots at Harvard, and Asians only 16%?
Unz says some of this is a legacy of fear by the universities that if they cut back sharply on the percentage of Jews in their student bodies, they would be accused of anti-Semitism, a throwback to the Jewish quotas that limited Jewish enrollment in the top schools 40 or 50 years back. Unz also argues that Jewish applicants and their families are on the same page culturally with the universities and their admission committees — liberal, secular, and urbane, while other white applicants, including religious Christians from small towns, are not. Unz says these cultural identifiers start at the top, where Jews now fill many of the senior positions at the most elite universities. And of course, Jews are philanthropic to universities, and as much as top universities say they need blind in admissions, they still look for applicants from wealthy families who can support the universities' fundraising campaigns. Finally, the top universities have preferences not only for racial minorities, but also for legacies (children of alumni), so there is a self-perpetuating aspect of the admission game — if Jews were a high share of the student body 20 to 30 years ago, as they were, then they will benefit more from legacy advantages than other groups, who are newer to these universities.
Unz overstates his case a bit. He looks for Jewish and Asian names on the lists of high achievers on the various exams and competitions, and there are many Jews who do not have obvious identifiable Jewish last names these days. Several of the commenters on Unz’s article identify Jewish students who have won math competitions whom Unz has missed because of this.
But the bigger point remains: Jews are now in the winning group in the college admissions derby, and their position is likely to come under attack, given the country’s rapidly shifting demographics. Jews are but 2% and declining in both absolute and percentage share of the population (and are below 2% among the age pool for college applicants), while other groups’ population share, especially among younger Americans, is rapidly rising — Asians now over 5%, African-Americans over 13%, and Hispanics over 16%.
So far, almost all of the commentary on Unz’s article has focused on his charges that there is clear discrimination against Asians, and almost none on the alleged over-representation of Jews at the Ivy League schools. Expect that to change. The subject is too juicy for too many people to be ignored.