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Why Asian Americans’ claim of Harvard admissions bias misses the point

Peter Gordon says their complaint that Asian Americans need higher grades to be admitted is right. However, universities do not exist for the sole benefit of those who attend; they need to pay attention to what’s best for society

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 August, 2017, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 August, 2017, 8:22pm

Harvard University has been named in a complaint by a group of several dozen Asian Americans claiming discrimination in the university admissions process. They make the statistically justified claim that Asians need higher grades and test scores to be admitted.

The US Justice Department is reportedly now going to move the case forward. As an alumnus and the father of two (now post-university) Asian-American children, I admit to not being disinterested.

Yet despite the alleged injustice, more than 20 per cent of the students admitted are Asian American, while Asian Americans make up only about 6 per cent of the US population. Since one can expect ability to be evenly distributed across all ethnic groups, this looks less like injustice than a problematical definition of “better-qualified”.

Harvard is not alone in this. Admissions officers usually emphasise “holistic” evaluation or the desirability of “diversity”, neither of which, whatever their merits, do much to dissuade these students that they were declined admission in favour of others – nominally “lesser-qualified” – from other groups.

Achievements may be correlated with ability, but they are also correlated with opportunity

When I was, long ago, running the alumni admissions interview process in Hong Kong for my alma mater, I was often asked “What does one have to have done to be admitted?”, to which I would reply something along the lines of, “It’s not what you have done, it’s what you will do once you graduate”.

I cannot vouch for what actually goes on behind the closed doors of admissions offices, but universities should be admitting students on the basis of ability or potential. Achievements, both scholastic and extracurricular, may be correlated with ability, but they are also correlated with opportunity. Ability is evenly distributed across the socio-economic and ethnic spectrum, while opportunity quite clearly is not. Admissions procedures which yield results significantly out of sync with the make-up of the community at large would seem to be prima facie problematical.

This is not to say that race per se is an acceptable criterion. But there are other ways of squaring this circle, such as taking socio-economic background into account; some schools make a point of doing just this.

Why US universities are changing what they look for in students, and how Asians are affected

Universities do not exist for the sole or even primary benefit of those that attend: no one “deserves” admittance. Given the considerable taxpayer support they receive, one might reasonably expect universities to maximise their “educational added value”, that is, to focus their attention on those students who could benefit from it most and who might, in turn, contribute the most to society upon graduation. These are not necessarily those who have the highest grades going in.

Exams provide only an imperfect indication of potential

Ability, potential and social benefit do not lend themselves to clear, objective metrics and university admissions officers are neither omniscient nor clairvoyant. And subjectivity can be – and often has been – turned to misguided as well as beneficial ends. So there needs to be some sort of oversight. Given the lack of consensus as to the social function of universities, the nature of this oversight is, and will remain, a subject of often contentious political debate.

Nevertheless, as long as elite university places remain a scarce resource, allocating them merely on the basis of such metrics as grades and past accomplishments is unlikely – especially in this age of tutoring and admissions consulting — to yield optimal results.

Why parents in Hong Kong and China use consultants to find US college places for their children

American university education is in many ways unique – highly fragmented and largely autonomous – but there are nevertheless some lessons here for Hong Kong’s own test-score-heavy university admissions process. Exams provide only an imperfect indication of potential. And since test scores are correlated with socio-economic standing, a purely test-score-based system may perpetuate rather than alleviate social rigidity.

The principles are far easier to state than achieve. The argument in the United States is currently framed as one of racial justice, but it is also more broadly a question of how society should best allocate scarce, indivisible opportunities. University places are limited in Hong Kong too, and so the issue echoes here.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review or Books