February 20, 2008
By Peter Schmidt
The long-running debate over affirmative action in college admissions just got more complicated, thanks to a new study that challenges the common assumption that whites are hurt most when colleges take applicants’ race and ethnicity into account.
The study, published by the University of California- Los Angeles last week in the scholarly journal InterActions, suggests that it is mainly Asian-Americans — not whites — who are held to a higher standard when top colleges use affirmative action.
Where such institutions have been banned from considering applicants’ race, the study finds, enrollment of Asian-Americans has increased while admissions of whites remained flat or, in some cases, declined. The study, an analysis of long-term enrollment trends at several exclusive public universities, found that the Asian-American share of enrollment increased:
*More than 15% at the University of Texas at Austin after a 1996 federal court ruling barred consideration of race in admissions.
*More than 15% at the University of Florida after Gov. Jeb Bush persuaded the state university system’s governing board to vote in 2000 to end race- and ethnicity-conscious admissions.
*More than 20% at the University of California-Berkeley, more than 10% at UCLA and more than 30% at the University of California-San Diego after that state’s voters passed a 1996 ballot measure barring the use of affirmative-action preferences by public colleges and other state agencies.
Although David Colburn and his two co-authors consider themselves advocates of affirmative action, he acknowledged their numbers show "Asian-Americans were discriminated against under an affirmative-action system."
Colburn’s assessment is in keeping with other research that has suggested that Asian-Americans are regarded as overrepresented on college campuses and therefore held to higher standards to keep their numbers down. The white applicants covered by this study fared no better in the absence of affirmative action than before. In fact, the number of white admissions in some cases dropped because of increased competition from Hispanics and from Asian-Americans.
This report comes as efforts are under way in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma to ban the use of affirmative action by public colleges and state agencies. Similar measures easily won approval in California, Michigan and Washington.
The authors of the new study seem to be hoping that their conclusions will erode white voters’ support for such measures. Their report says their findings "can hardly be satisfying" to "those who campaigned for the elimination of affirmative action in the belief that it would advantage the admission of white students." The study even predicts a white backlash against race-neutral admissions policies if Asian-Americans continue to make gains.
Most leading Asian-American advocacy groups have supported affirmative action. When the U.S. Supreme Court last weighed in on the legality of colleges’ use of affirmative action in admissions in two University of Michigan rulings in 2003, 28 Asian-American organizations signed a legal brief urging the court to uphold such policies given the educational benefits of diversity. (A 5-4 majority of justices agreed with such logic.)
In the long term, it’s unclear what impact this new study will have on the views of Asian-Americans — or the views of the courts. If colleges are using race-conscious admissions policies to limit enrollments of Chinese-, Vietnamese-, Indian- and Japanese-Americans, will they be able to continue convincing the courts that their intent is the promotion of diversity?