Asian representation in elite academic competitions has risen dramatically over the past three decades. Their representation at elite colleges has not.

Data Courtesy of Ron Unz

Asian representation in elite academic competitions has risen dramatically over the past three decades. Their representation at elite colleges has not.

October 16, 2016

Does the Ivy League Discriminate Against Asian American Applicants?

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All three of Naomi Hill’s ’17 older siblings attended Ivy League schools. Hoping to follow her siblings’ path, Hill — then a freshman in high school — sat down with her counselor to chart her own path to college. But before she could get her feet off the ground, her counselor warned, “because you’re Asian, you will be compared against people with GPAs and test scores that are this much higher.”

Hill, who was adopted and raised in a white, Jewish household, questioned the ‘Asian’ grouping.

“I didn’t feel that it was fair for me to be put into that vast group,” Hill said.

The same sense that Hill’s counselor had about Ivy League admissions — that Asian applicants must perform better than non-Asians to achieve parity — underlies the newest tide of legal challenges to the use of race in admission, a tide that now is rolling toward Ithaca’s shores.

In late August, a group called the Asian American Coalition for Education filed a complaint against Cornell and Columbia with the Department of Education, alleging the two universities engaged in “systematic illegal discrimination against Asian American students.” The AACE filed a similar complaint three months earlier against Brown, Dartmouth and Yale, again alleging discriminatory admission practices against Asian applicants.

Higher Standards

Hill said that her counselor, other Asian parents and Asian students at her high school shared the assumption that Asian applicants must meet a higher standard of assessment in admissions.

“I was told that, because of my race, my SAT score — my math score in particular — was not high enough to compete with other Asians and that I might not get into an Ivy or a top school because of it,” Hill said. “I had one friend whose mother signed her up for every extracurricular that either I or my other Asian friends were in, just so her daughter would be on par with the other Asians from her high school.”

The AACE report provides some evidence to support this view, citing a book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, that documents admission disparities by race at four unnamed elite private schools and three elite public schools. The researchers found that, between similarly situated Asian and white applicants, an Asian applicant is 67 percent less likely than a white applicant to receive an offer of admission. The researchers also found that Asian applicants must score considerably higher on standardized tests to reach a likelihood of admission comparable to that of non-Asian applicants.

Prof. Richard Sander, law, UCLA and Medha Uppala conducted a similar study with data from three unnamed Ivy League schools. Sander and Uppala concluded, “No other racial or ethnic group at these schools is as underrepresented relative to its application numbers as are Asian Americans. Indeed, no other racial or ethnic group comes even remotely close to this level of underrepresentation.”

‘The New Jews’

“When people argue that there is discrimination against Asians in the Ivy League, I agree,” Hill said. “There is.”

Sara Harberson, a former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, corroborated Hill’s belief.

“[H]olistic admissions can allow for a gray zone of bias at elite institutions, working against a group such as Asian Americans that excels in the black-and-white world of academic achievement,” Harberson wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.

Does data support this assertion?

Cornell is 18.09 percent Asian — defined as “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent” — according to the University’s 2015-2016 Common Data Set. This figure puts the University just above the median Asian enrollment in the Ivy League, but well above Dartmouth (15.21 percent) and Brown (13.32 percent) and fairly below Princeton (21.50 percent) and the University of Pennsylvania (20.14 percent).

But the AACE and others say these figures are out of balance with the Asian population, and especially the group’s academic record.

Asian success in elite academic competitions nationwide is well documented. In 2010, Asian students constituted only 11 percent of California’s high school population, but 60 percent of the state’s National Merit Scholars. The same pattern of overachievement has been documented in a number of states, including Texas and New York.

Sixty-four percent of Intel Science Talent Search finalists since 2010 have also been Asian American, though Asians constituted only 5.8 percent of the U.S. population as of 2011, according to the Pew Research Center. Thus, Asian students are among the highest academic achievers in the country.

The percent of National Merit Scholars who are Asian is several times higher than expected from their representation in the population.

Data Courtesy of Ron Unz

The percent of National Merit Scholars who are Asian is several times higher than expected from their representation in the population.

Asian Americans also compose at least 31 percent of Presidential Scholars, although the true figure may be higher because Asians without a traditionally Asian last name, like Hill, were not counted in the analysis that produced this figure.

More so than the other competitions, the Presidential Scholar criteria match many Ivy League schools’ broad-based criteria for admission. Candidates are evaluated not only on their academic record, but also on their “personal characteristics, leadership and service activities, and an analysis of their essay,” according to the program’s website.

“Accordingly, one would expect the percentage of Asian Americans selected as Presidential Scholars to predict the percentage admitted to the Ivy League colleges,” the AACE’s complaint said. “It does not.”

Ivy League schools’ apparent failure to respond to Asian American population growth and high academic achievement has led the AACE and other researchers to dub Asians “the new Jews.” The nickname alludes to several Ivy League schools’ well-documented discrimination against qualified Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.

Notably, Cornell did not institute racial and ethnic quotas to exclude Jewish students, according to the University. However, Cornell did adopt, and still uses, legacy preference policies that were originally implemented in other schools “to screen out Jewish applicants,” according to The New York Times.

The AACE’s complaint against Brown, Dartmouth and Yale recounted a study that compared Asian enrollment at the eight Ivy League schools, including Cornell, to that at the California Institute of Technology, where an applicants’ race is not considered in admission decisions. The study’s key finding: CalTech’s Asian enrollment coincides with Asian population growth, but Ivy League enrollment does not.

“The relative enrollment of Asians at Harvard [plummeted], dropping by over half during the last 20 years, with a range of similar declines also occurring at Yale, Cornell, and most other Ivy League universities,” said Ron Unz, the researcher who conducted the study, in the paper.

“The yearly fluctuations in Asian enrollments are often smaller than were the changes in Jewish numbers at those institutions during the ‘quota era’ of the past,” Unz added.

The University’s Defense

The University, citing its “practice not to comment on active or pending litigation,” declined to comment on these specific allegations of discrimination, but it defended its race-conscious admissions policies in an amici curiae (“friends of the court”) brief filed with the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas (2016).

In the brief, seven Ivy League schools — all except Harvard — and a number of other elite universities argued that race-conscious admissions processes are necessary to acquire the academic benefits that flow from diversity, an interest the Court has deemed “compelling.”

“Diversity encourages students to question their assumptions, to understand that wisdom may be found in unexpected voices and to gain an appreciation of the complexity of today’s world,” the universities wrote in the brief.

The universities further argued that their policies “will hasten the arrival of the day when race no longer matters.”

Since 1978, the Supreme Court has allowed universities to defend race-conscious admissions policies on the same grounds that the amici brief describes.

However, AACE president YuKong Zhao said the University has left many questions unanswered.

“If Ivy League schools claim they have not discriminated against Asian American applicants, why [don’t] they make their admissions process and files transparent?” he said.

Zhao also questioned the authenticity of the University’s commitment to diversity.

“If Ivy League schools really cherish diversity, why [don’t] they use their legacy slots to help disadvantaged minorities, instead of limiting Asian American enrollment?” Zhao asked. “When will Ivy League schools start promoting diversity on their sports teams?”

In response to Zhao’s questions, the University reiterated its decision “not to comment on active or pending litigation.”

Student Perspectives

Attitudes toward the University’s admission policies among Cornell’s Asian community are complicated.

For many, the history of race-conscious admission as a means to increase the enrollment of historically underrepresented groups — particularly African Americans — paints race consciousness favorably.

“Because we see other minority groups benefitting from this, even though we may not individually benefit from it, we have compassion and a willingness to be for this policy that helps our fellow minority groups,” said Francis Ledesma ’19, treasurer of the Cornell Filipino Association. “And we recognize that diversity makes Cornell a better place.”

The Asian Pacific Americans for Action at Cornell has also defended the University’s race-conscious admission approach.

“Students of color, specifically Black folx, Latin@s, indigenous folx, Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians, are more likely to go to under-resourced K-12 schools,” the group wrote in a statement. “It’s critical for universities to consider these racial barriers in education during admissions.”

Even Hill, after conceding that race-conscious decision making may have affected her negatively, agreed that the approach produces invaluable benefits.

“I think affirmative action, without a viable alternative, is an element that has to be included in admissions,” Hill said. “I wouldn’t want to see Cornell use the [race-neutral] CalTech system.”

Like Hill, the AACE prefers race-neutral admissions, but Zhao said it “supports the goal to achieve diversity on college campuses” and does not attack affirmative action at large.

“Our complaints focus on eliminating illegal discriminations against Asian American applicants, not opposing affirmative actions,” Zhao said.

Ledesma advised potentially frustrated Asian applicants to see the benefits of race-consciousness and trust the axiom that “things will always work out in the end.”

“Maybe being of a certain ethnicity may hurt you in college applications, but you will end up where you fit, a place that will make you happy and a place that will push you to be better,” he said.


The Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education has not yet determined whether it will investigate the complaint against Cornell. The AACE is waiting for OCR’s response before it decides its next step, according to Zhao.

The leading case on the topic is Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, et al., which is currently being adjudicated in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. One of SFFA’s requests is a declaratory judgment that Harvard’s admission scheme is unconstitutional, barring the university from using race in future admission decisions.

Last Thursday, Harvard informed its 2009–2015 applicants that it will turn over data from their admissions decisions to SFFA on October 28. The parties have until March 2, 2018 to file briefs in the case, according to a case schedule issued by presiding judge Allison D. Burroughs, an Obama appointee.

For the thousands of students who, like Hill, harbor Ivy League aspirations, much hinges on the case’s outcome. It may be almost as important as the GPA, test scores and other accolades they are currently working to accrue.

  • Thomas

    I don’t “get it.”
    If you visit any Ivy League college you will
    see thousands of Asians . (Chinese, Koreans,

    • and silly people like you who don’t know how to read and understand the ideas presented in this article

  • Broken system

    How about discrimination of whites who have worked extremely hard through school, juggled sports,clubs, and won many awards with excellent GPAS AND SATS who watch their fellow students from the same school ( same economic background, etc.) who are not nearly as qualified, but happen to have ethnic sounding last names or a parent that never went to college, get into schools that, clearly, the white kid is more qualified? Happens ALL the time. Welcone to America and welcome to white discrimination as well. I witnessed a lot of kids dreams get crushed after working and studying so hard and doing exceedingly well.

    • R. Elgin

      Do you have actual data to uphold your allegation or is this some more “truth-because-it-feels-right” urban legend?

      • it happened to me as a winner of a national merit scholarship winner applied to all ivy league schools and only got into cornell in january. why? because my dad isnt a professior at the school, many jews get in this way but fail to get honors in the ivy leagues per capita, my dad isnt rich many wasps and jews get in this way now, they are worried about discrimination against the asians by letting in the not as smart jews because of money or dads a teacher there, so that hurts the whites as well. and of course if you believe in a christian religion and have it on your application your banned as well by the atheists, the jews, the asians, so its become a country of 67% white that can only get 33% of the seats in the ivy league when they should be closer to 50%. the jews and especially the asians do study more and are smarter on average but the pure size of the white population means there are huge numbers of qualified applicants t

  • Mark Jackson

    Interesting points to say least. But there must be a balance of diversity and merit.

    If colleges go on to select students based on their merit only, then about 60% of Ivy Leaguers would be Asian-Americans, according to this article.

    At the same time, people are very upset about Cornell’s lack of diversity as Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans each make up 9% of the student body (18% total).

    If you are to up the enrollment of Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans to show more diversity, and also make sure that Asian-Americans get their fair share of merit-based enrollment, then what would happen to other people (white-americans, native americans, international students) applying to Cornell? African, Hispanic and Asian Americans would make up more than (or about) 80% of the student body.

    Now would that be fair for the white americans, native americans, international students and anybody else who are applying?

    • John Johnson

      How would it be unfair if race is a social construct, and if admissions were weighed by family socioeconomics and then beyond that only considered merit?

  • Frankie Leung

    Jews were discriminated in the 1940s and 1950s. May be Asian Americans should resist.

  • TheNakedTruth

    I think it’s great that Francis Ledesma, treasurer of the Cornell Filipino Association, has decided to give up his enrollment at Cornell and transfer to a less prestigious school to allow someone less qualified by objective measures (but more “diverse”) to attend Cornell in his place.
    Oh, wait . . .

  • George

    The likely result of this controversy is that Asian American enrollment will increase. Non-Hispanic whites, who make up 65% of the population and have the second highest academic achievement, will make up maybe 30% of enrollment at elite schools (and will be only ones paying their own way). And idiots will claim they still enjoy white privilege.

  • borris batanov

    Racial quotas are part of political correctness. The quotas are racist. All quotas are bigotry. Political correctness does not do away with hierarchies, but only inverts them, thereby preserving prejudice.

    Asians are discriminating against by the University of California system:

    “Asian-Americans blast UC admissions policy
    They say new standards are unfair, will reduce their numbers on campus”

    California voters approved a ballot initiative that bans affirmative action in the Univ of Calif system. In violation of this, and thus the law, the Univ of Calif, Berkeley spent $20 million to admit “people of color,” this at a time when the school had a debt of $150 million.

    A vote for Hillary Clinton will perpetuate this corruption of democracy. A vote for Trump will challenge it, esp. on the Supreme Court. Look at how the political establishment, the media and the Clinton Mafia vilify Trump by calling him a racist, when in fact they all smuggly preserve bigotry under the guise of political correctness.

  • Nan

    If it is truely for helping the “weak/poor” people, why not using the family income instead of race? The predent’s kids have much better education resources than most of us, asian white, black or any races.

    • borris batanov

      Exactly, help should be based on economic need, not race.

      Admissions should be blind to race. Race should not even appear on applications.

      Admissions should be based solely on merit.

      Quotas reflect the Left/Liberal unholy preoccupation with identity politics, which divide us, not unite us.

      Cornell Administration is sick to the core with Left/Liberal political correctness and its biases — see recent CDS article about its misuse of Title X. Nothing will change until students and alumni demand it.

      Objectivity and disinterest not only no longer exist, but are regarded as evils.

  • Chen Liu

    As someone with an Indian origin, I feel like my son has to work a lot harder than other groups to be considered competitive in the highly selective admission process. This is exactly why I’m considering having my son get an Ivy Ready Evaluation.

    I’m hoping that the evaluation help me see where he is and compare the results of the actual application process. Has anyone used it before? ( If Ivy Ready says he will do well when he applies, but he doesn’t get into any school, I will know it’s because of racism.

  • It’s a joke

    The quotas are a joke and even discriminate within the minority groups themselves. For example, my Hispanic son-highly qualified, worked extremely hard, number 3 in class in competitive high school, great Credentials, captain of 2 sports, etc. -BUT- his first generation Hispanic parents went to college. Another student, same school, not nearly as qualified, much lower class rank, scores, no sports, few extracurricular activities-BUT Hispanic parents did not attend college. SECOND less qualified HISPANIC students gets into several Ivy League schools while my son was rejected. SO there is discrimation even within minority groups and if your PARENTS happen to be less educated you are selected over same minority group, although less qualified. The system is SCREWED UP!!! You are penalized if your first generation parents happened to work their asses off and put themselves through college- now their kids are at a disadvantage compared to same “minority” groups. It’s all a big joke.

    • Frankie Leung

      This situation can only be rectified by political means. Unless Asian Americans or Latinos participate fully in the political process and put our views forward and make sure those make decisions on admission know the stake, there is no better means. Asian Americans don’t just go to medicine or engineering or accounting and behave like nerds. Get involved in a pluralistic society and be counted.

  • Russell Miller

    We are so accustomed to carving up districts and equal distribution of K-12 funding that we come accept that as the norm. Case in point: “Students of color… are more likely to go to under-resourced K-12 schools…It’s critical for universities to consider these racial barriers in education during admissions.”

    We should not accept poor funding in K-12 as the norm and this band-aid fix in college admission to “make up” for it. Quality K-12 education is a fundamental right to all children. This country loves to boast how we care about our kids. Then do it.

  • jeff

    let’s not forget with nearly a million students in the NYC public school system the Bronx High School has about 75 % asians in it with a 2% population of NYC after taking an entrance exam; however the school is supported by approx. 7 million residents who pay taxes I think this would also be a problem in the same vain and needs to be addressed

  • Jim

    Drop the athletic program. That will free up 300-400 slots for Asians right there. The students should be studying anyway, not playing on teams or going to games. It will improve their chances of getting into an Ivy League medical school or an Ivy League law school.

    And if that doesn’t work, just stop admitting white students. That will solve all the problems described in this article. People might say that’s “illegal” but I bet there’s a dozen federal judges out there who would approve it. Roll the dice, Cornell!

  • Facts

    Whites are proportionately underrepresented at Cornell

    • Franie Leung

      In America, if you appear not being discriminated against in your historic past, i.e. your ancestors, you are supposed to protect and assert your right.

  • George

    Perhaps Asian students are handicapped because of the well documented prevalence of massive cheating.

  • Bad news

    My high school actually had a group of Asian students that gave each other the answers to the tests – those who had them earlier in the day would pass the answers onto the ones who had it later in the day . Everyone knew about it. They did this from 7th grade on. Just saying. This is by no means the norm I’m sure but it was a real thing- and they all got into amazing schools..

    • Franie Leung

      I went to a school where no Asians cheat. What can you say?

      • George

        That would only be possible if the school had no Asians.

        • Franie Leung

          What kind of logic? How can that be no Asian in a school. I was one. Don’t be stupid.

  • Michael P.

    Has anyone heard of what Chen Liu was talking about? I checked it out,, and it seems ok. Anyone know of this?

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  • Tanesha


    Affirmative action is nice when you reap the benefits not-so-nice when you don’t.



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