The affirmative action debate threatens to become the single defining issue of the Asian American electorate in the coming cycle, with Asian Americans engaging in heated discussion for or against race-conscious affirmative action in higher education admissions. Supporters of affirmative action — who represent all facets of the AANHPI community — are holding fast to a rhetorical frontline of higher education access for all high school students, and emphasizing the value of affirmative action in removing barriers for underprivileged and underrepresented Black, Latino, Native and Asian American students.
On the other side are (predominantly Chinese American) Asian American organizations who have filed complaints and lawsuits against elite universities like Harvard seeking to end holistic review, spurred to act in part by conservative anti-affirmative action lobbyists like Edward Blum — the mastermind of the Fisher SCOTUS case of a few years back.
One of the chief arguments made by opponents of affirmative action is that college admissions is a “zero sum game” where each applicant is competing for a fixed number of offer letters. Thus, conclude affirmative action’s critics, any offer made to a non-Asian American student (one whom these critics also assert is underqualified) is illegitimate because it removes an opportunity for admission from an Asian American applicant (whom they also implicitly argue is more qualified and therefore more deserving of admission). Yet, this framing appears to fundamentally misunderstand both the goal of college admissions and the term “zero-sum game”.
In this post, I take on the idea that college admissions can be accurately described as a “zero-sum game”.
Over the weekend, 16-year-old Mira Hu went missing in San Marino, California. Hu — a student at San Marino High School — had been dropped off at nearby Arcadia High School on Saturday to take the SAT college entrance exam. However, when her parents arrived to pick her up, Hu was nowhere to be found: hours later, she sent a text message to her brother that said Hu was running away due to the pressure of her SAT exam performance and the college admissions process.
Yet, perhaps it is precisely the pressure to be “the perfect kid” that could be causing anxiety for students like Mira Hu.
There is an extremely popular New York Times infographic that Asian American opponents of affirmative action often share to suggest that elite Ivy League universities have implemented a cap quota on Asian American enrollees. In a nutshell, the infographic (shown above) illustrates that the enrollment of Asian American students at Harvard and other Ivies has fluctuated at around 16-20% for the last twenty years, while enrollment at Caltech has increased since 2000. An overlay of the growth in Asian Americans aged 18-21 suggests that Caltech’s admissions is keeping pace with the growth in the Asian American population, whereas Asian American enrollment at East Coast Ivies are being unnaturally depressed. This is the work of affirmative action, suggests the infographic.
The associated New York Times opinion piece (“Statistics Indicate an Ivy League Asian Quota“, penned by uber-conservative anti-affirmative action lobbyist Ron Unz) makes the same argument more explicitly.
To Unz’s credit, this infographic is superficially compelling. I’ve been writing in detail about affirmative action for the last year or more, and even I never really questioned these data. I just sort of accepted this graph, if not its larger conclusions.
That is, until today, when I sat down and asked myself whether or not Unz’s assertions really made sense mathematically? And y’know what, guys — turns out that everything we thought we knew about this infographic is wrong!
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