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Brown Center Chalkboard

When is discrimination okay?

Earlier this week, the Asian-American Coalition for Education (AACE) filed an official complaint to the U.S. Office for Civil Rights against Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth, accusing the institutions of discrimination against Asian-Americans in their admissions process. This joins earlier lawsuits filed in 2014 against both Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill, which have been delayed while the Supreme Court considers Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin for a second time.

The summary for the recent complaint outlines evidence of discrimination against Asian-Americans before advocating for an end to race-based affirmative action in college admissions. The facts presented in the brief are as follows:

  • First, enrollment at elite institutions has remained flat for decades despite rapid growth in the Asian-American population.
  • Second, the enrollment share of Asian-Americans at selective institutions is below that of prestigious awards given to high school students, such as National Merit Scholarship semifinalists and U.S. Presidential Scholars.
  • Third, research has found direct evidence of discrimination against Asians in admissions.

The first two points above are simple to verify using publicly available data. According to my calculations using IPEDS, Asians as a percent of undergraduate students at Yale have risen from 15.4 percent in 1994 to 16.5 percent in 2014. At the same time, according to my calculations from the CPS, the share of college-aged (18-21) Asians in the U.S. has nearly doubled, from 3.0 percent to 5.7 percent. The list of U.S. Presidential Scholars is publically available and indeed contains many Asian-American students. And research has found that the typical Asian student needs to score 140 points higher on the SAT than an observationally similar white student to have the same likelihood of admission at selective private institutions.

The above paints a picture of Asian-Americans facing a higher bar for gaining admission to selective institutions than observationally similar students of other races. Of course, researchers do not have access to all of the information about a candidate that admissions offices do. Universities care about more than just test scores and grades, including other factors such as life challenges, character, and contributions to diversity on campus.

But the only way a higher academic bar for Asian-Americans can be consistent with admissions offices not discriminating is if Asian-Americans are lacking in these other factors. It could be the case that admissions offices perceive Asian-Americans as being less qualified than whites along the dimensions that researchers cannot observe. Even if that is true, it hardly seems fair. In particular, it is hard to argue that the marginal white student makes a greater contribution to diversity or has overcome greater challenges than the marginal Asian-American student.

The diversity argument is especially challenging. Even at institutions with large Asian-American populations, Asian-Americans are not a monolithic group. UC Berkeley provides a useful illustration. In a state where race-based preferences are no longer allowed, Asian-Americans made up 42.9 percent of Berkeley’s 2015 freshman enrollment. But lumping all Asian-Americans together masks considerable diversity: no single country of origin exceeded 20 percent of the freshman class, with Chinese-Americans comprising the largest share at 19.5 percent. By contrast, white students made up 24.3 percent of the incoming class. Would penalizing, say, Vietnamese-Americans (2.7 percent of the incoming class) to make way for more white students promote the educational benefits of diversity?

In contrast to other examples of inequality, the broader community of education researchers has largely ignored this issue. I believe there are two contributing factors. The first is that while there is evidence of discrimination against Asian-Americans in the admissions process, they still do well on measures such as college graduation and household income, where they substantially exceed the national average. By contrast, the household wealth of black and Hispanic families continues to lag far behind that of whites. Thus, for better or worse, it is difficult to justify spending research money and effort on a group that is collectively faring well when there are other groups that face severe challenges when available time for research is finite.

The second reason is that some view these lawsuits as attacks against all race-based preferences, including those that benefit under-represented minorities such as blacks and Hispanics. Indeed, in their recent complaint, the AACE writes that they “do not support [the] continuation” of race-based preferences. By framing the issue as an all-or-nothing choice about race-based preferences, the AACE has potentially alienated some who believe that discrimination against Asian-Americans is unfair but that preferences for under-represented minorities should remain. An alternative proposal to put Asian-Americans on the same footing as whites in admissions may have garnered broader support.

So, when is discrimination okay? Is discriminating against Asian-Americans justified if the alternative is the complete removal of race-based preferences and reducing the representation of black and Hispanic students at elite institutions? I think reasonable people can come down on either side of the issue, but it’s worth having the conversation.

Author

The Brown Center Chalkboard launched in January 2013 as a weekly series of new analyses of policy, research, and practice relevant to U.S. education.

In July 2015, the Chalkboard was re-launched as a Brookings blog in order to offer more frequent, timely, and diverse content. Contributors to both the original paper series and current blog are committed to bringing evidence to bear on the debates around education policy in America.

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