Reflecting their growing social and economic prominence in the U.S., Asian-Americans are disproportionately represented at the most elite universities in the land, relative to their numbers in the total population.
While Asians -- defined broadly as people who can trace their ancestry to East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands -- account for only about 5 percent of the U.S. populace, they are believed to represent up to 20 percent of the enrollment at the top Ivy League schools.
However, the irony is that if the admission criteria and process in all U.S. universities were completely fair and equitable -- that is, based purely on academic qualifications -- the Asian weighting in the elite colleges would likely be significantly higher.
In an article in the Boston Globe, Kara Miller, a history professor at Babson College, wrote that Asian-Americans score an average of 1623 -- out of a possible 2400 -- on SAT tests. By comparison, Hispanics and blacks average 1,364 and 1,276 on the SAT, respectively, while whites average 1,581.
Quite a conundrum, indeed. Are Asians being celebrated and rewarded for their hard work, intelligence and success? Or are they being discriminated against?
It depends on who you ask.
Consider what happened in California -- a state with a very high Asian population of about 13 percent -- in late 1996. Voters passed Proposition 209, a referendum that essentially revoked Affirmative Action measures and deemed that entry into public colleges -- including the huge University of California (UC) system -- should be entirely race-blind.
A direct consequence of this was that the percentage of Asian-Americans at universities like Berkeley, UC-Irvine, and UCLA immediately skyrocketed, said Stephen D.H. Hsu, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon in Eugene. At those institutions, the Asian-American representation currently approaches 50 percent.
Not surprisingly, the passage of 209 led to a political backlash and resentment against Asian-Americans -- from whites, but particularly from African-Americans and Hispanics, who saw their numbers plunge at these institutions.
The administration at UC is now under significant pressure to remove the current system, Hsu noted.
They've responded to the criticism by tweaking the admission process, he said. Test scores are not weighted as heavily as high school GPA, and the top few percent of graduates at
each high school are admitted to UC, even if, in absolute terms, they are not as strong as higher scoring students from top high schools.
Of course, Hsu adds, Asian-Americans are generally happy with things as they are -- since they both find it fair and beneficial to them.
Moreover, California's top two private schools, Stanford University and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) also boast disproportionately high Asian-American representation.
At my alma mater, Caltech, which has a heavy focus on science and engineering and a completely meritocratic admission process, Asian-Americans account for 30 percent-40 percent of the student body, Hsu added.
Hsu concludes that Affirmative Action probably hurts both whites and Asians since it arbitrarily takes class slots away from them.
This is quite ironic since Asian-Americans have long been discriminated in most other ways throughout their long history in this country.
The word quota is controversial and politically-charged; one must be careful when using it.
However it's difficult not to conclude that some elite universities do indeed impose a quota -- officially or subconsciously -- upon Asian enrollment in order to control their numbers at some specified levels.
Consider a recent study undertaken by Thomas Espenshade, a Princeton sociologist. He calculated that in 1997 African-Americans who achieved scores of 1150 scores on two original SAT tests had the same chances of getting accepted to top private colleges as whites who scored in the 1460s and Asians who scored perfect 1600s.
Or put it another way, Asian applicants typically need to score an extra 140 or so points on their SATs to compete equally with white students.
Miller of Babson College also wrote that most elite universities appear determined to keep their Asian American totals in a narrow range. Yale's class of 2013 is 15.5 percent Asian American, compared with 16.1 percent at Dartmouth, 19.1 percent at Harvard and 17.6 percent at Princeton.
However, white students are similarly victimized by admission policies at some elite schools.
Espenshade discovered that when comparing applicants with similar grades, scores, athletic qualifications, and family history for seven elite private colleges and universities: whites were three times as likely to get accepted as Asians; Hispanics were twice as likely to win admission as whites. and African-Americans were at least five times as likely to be accepted as whites.
Moreover, if all elite private universities enacted race-blind admissions, the percentage of Asian students would jump from 24 percent to 39 percent (similar to what they already are now at Caltech and Berkeley, two elite institutions with race-blind admissions; the former due to a belief in meritocracy, the latter due to Proposition 209).
What Asian-Americans are enduring now is reminiscent of the travails of American Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, when colleges like Harvard and Yale imposed quotas to limit their numbers at these elite institutions. And like many of those Jews from seven or eight decades ago, numerous Asian-American students today come from poor, humble immigrant households.
Perhaps the bottom line in all this discussion is that entry into and success in top-flight schools -- regardless of the surrounding circumstances and controversies -- are pushing more and more Asian-Americans into prominent positions in corporate America, Wall Street and even the corridors of power in Washington D.C.