There is no denying that Asian American applicants face discrimination in the highly selective college admissions process. We at Ivy Coach have been outspoken about this injustice for many years. In fact, in the Asian American Coalition for Education’s complaint against Yale University, Dartmouth College, and Brown University to the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, we were quoted voicing unequivocal confirmation that Asian Americans do face unjust obstacles in college admissions. And while we have been quite vocal about our reservations with the misguided approach of the Asian American Coalition for Education to fighting back against this discrimination, we do support the spirit of their grievance with these institutions. However, we take exception to their invocations of the term “quota system” and we take exception to any analogies this group — and others — have made with the quota system that Jews faced in higher education since the founding of these institutions through much of the twentieth century.
Asian Americans Do Not Face Quotas in College Admissions
While Asian American applicants to our nation’s most elite universities do face discrimination, they do not face racial quotas. There is not a limit on the number of Asian American applicants to any of our nation’s most elite institutions, including the Ivy League universities. Not at Harvard. Not at Yale, Brown, or Dartmouth. Not at any of these universities. The dean of admissions doesn’t say to her staff during the admissions process, “We have 822 Asian Americans. We can only take 19 more so be mindful.” That just doesn’t happen. Rather, the discrimination that Asian Americans face in highly selective college admissions while absolutely real is more beneath the surface. It’s when an admissions officer reads a student’s file and stereotypes an applicant as yet another Asian American student who excels in math and science. Or yet another Asian American applicant who is first chair violin. Or yet another Asian American applicant who tutors low-income students in math outside of school. You get the idea.
Stereotypes can have terribly negative consequences. But we all stereotype — every last one of us. You see, stereotypes allow our brains to process information faster, to make sense of the world around us. The famed psychologist Robert Cialdini has a term for this, one he shared with the world in the seminal book on persuasion, “Influence”: “click, whirr.” To put it simply, “click, whirr” is a term to refer to making essentially automatic decisions in a scenario rather than conducting a thorough, thoughtful analysis.
It traces back to when we were hunter-gatherers. If we heard a predator approaching, we knew to run. We didn’t draw up a Venn diagram to debate the options of what we should do. If we did, we’d likely be toast. Now could our decision have been wrong? Could it have been something other than a predator approaching? Yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that we all stereotype — even the most politically correct among us. As they sang it in the hit Broadway show “Avenue Q,” “We’re all a little bit racist.” It’s true.
Jewish Students Did Face Quotas in College Admissions
For much of the storied histories of our nation’s most elite institutions of higher education, including the Ivy League universities, Jewish quotas not only existed — they were discussed openly at these schools. Let’s use Harvard as an example. To address what was termed “the Jewish problem,” in 1922, Harvard’s then-president, A. Lawrence Lowell, proposed a quota system for the number of Jewish students earning admission to the school. As reports the American Jewish Historical Society, “Lowell argued that cutting the number of Jews at Harvard to a maximum of 15% would be good for the Jews, because limits would prevent further anti-Semitism. Lowell reasoned, ‘The anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews. If their number should become 40% of the student body, the race feeling would become intense.'”
This wasn’t a thought swirling inside the then-president of Harvard University’s head. This was spoken aloud. He also happened to write a philosophy professor at the university and argue that admitting Jewish students would cause harm to the university because their matriculation would discourage Protestants from attending. Yes, you read that correctly. And if you’d like to learn a whole lot more about the strict quotas imposed on Jewish applicants at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, we encourage you to read Jerome Karabel’s excellent book “The Chosen: The Hidden History Of Admission and Exclusion At Harvard, Yale, And Princeton.” Of course, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton weren’t alone. Nor was anti-Semitism in admissions confined to the Ivy League. It was widespread across the landscape of American universities (remember our post on Emory University’s dental school?).
The fact is that Asian Americans do face discrimination in highly selective college admissions. It’s discrimination that needs to end. But groups like the Asian American Coalition for Education should not try to draw analogies to the discrimination that Jewish students faced in college admissions in decades past because doing so is not only egregiously offensive to the Jewish people but it undercuts the important argument they are trying to make.
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