Georgetown study shows that racial preferences deny admission to more than one in five qualified Asian American applicants to selective colleges. You didn’t hear that from Georgetown.
A substantial number of Asian Americans oppose racial preferences in college admissions (otherwise known by the euphemism “affirmative action”). In a transparent effort to dissuade them and courts from this view, Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Health Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) created and broadly disseminated a fundamentally dishonest study, falsely proclaiming there is “no strong evidence of discrimination against Asian American applicants in admissions to highly selective colleges.”
For research to be meaningful, its hypothesis has to be valid, its methodology reliable, and its analysis unbiased. CEW’s study and report Selective Bias: Asian Americans, Test Scores, and Holistic Admissions is none of these. Instead, CEW tries to take-down a straw man of its creation with flawed methodology, biased analysis, and misleading headlines, all packaged into a broadside against Asian Americans delivered through a widely distributed press release, report, and webpage.
CEW Demeans Asian Americans
CEW’s mudslinging starts by seeking to shame Asian Americans with the repugnant accusation that they are dupes, shilling for white opposition to affirmative action. The introduction to CEW’s report asks:
Why the focus on Asian Americans? It is indicative of the complex place Asian Americans have in US society. These court cases come at a time of increased attention to assaults against Asian Americans. Many of the attackers have scapegoated their victims as spreaders of the deadly COVID-19 virus. Conversely, the use of Asian American rather than White plaintiffs in the college admissions cases is meant to evoke a sympathetic reaction. [My emphasis.]
This evidence-free ad hominem attack trivializes 25 years of Asian American opposition to racial preferences. In the United States, there are about 23 million Asian Americans from 20 countries as diverse as China, Japan, Vietnam, and India. A 2019 PEW study shows that 58% of Asian Americans oppose the use of race or ethnicity in college admissions, though a 2020 AAPI Voter Survey of Asian Americans suggests 70% support for less invasive “affirmative action programs designed to help Blacks/Black people, women, and other minorities get better access to higher education.”
According to a Californians for Equal Rights (CFER) release, Asian Americans were the key to defeating Proposition 16, which last year failed to reverse a ban on affirmative action in the University of California and California State University systems. CFER referred to Chinese immigrants and their children as the “inspiration and backbone” of the opposition. Wenyuan Wu, CFER’s executive director, told me that financial support for No on 16 came “overwhelmingly” from Chinese Americans. Similarly, Ballotpedia reported that Asian groups were prominent in opposition to Washington’s Initiative 1000, which in 2019 unsuccessfully sought to repeal prohibitions on affirmative action and quotas in public employment, education, and contracting.
Commencing in 2014, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit with more than 20,000 members, many of whom are Asian American, has filed lawsuits against Harvard, the University of North Carolina, the University of Texas at Austin, and Yale for discriminating against Asian Americans in their admissions practices.
Based on complaints received in 2016 from more than 130 Asian American organizations, the Justice Department opened an investigation against Yale. In February 2020, the Justice Department sued Yale for years-long discrimination against racially-disfavored applicants, including in particular most Asian and white applicants. The Biden Administration dismissed the lawsuit.
It is shameful, but unsurprising, that Georgetown would demean many millions of Asian Americans as puppets, simply because they won’t bend to woke dogma and will actively protect their rights.
False Alternatives Drive an Invalid Research Design
The purported purpose of CEW’s study is to analyze whether SFFA is correct that Asian Americans would benefit by replacing “holistic” admissions used by selective colleges with a process based solely on SAT and ACT scores. As CEW explains in its report: “All these [SFFA] cases allege that Asian American college applicants are being held to an unfair standard and claim that if colleges considered only academic merit, Asian American applicants would gain a greater number of seats.” CEW then postulates that it can assess this claim by evaluating how enrollments of Asian Americans in 91 selective colleges would change if such colleges considered only test scores in their admissions process.
CEW has created a false dichotomy intended to make Asian Americans seem shallow and nerdy.
Neither SFFA, nor other opponents of racial preferences, oppose holistic admissions. Rather, they oppose the use of holistic admissions as a cloak for discrimination. Claiming that opponents of affirmative action seek to eliminate non-academic factors from the admission process is as bogus as equating an aversion to rancid milk to a refusal to consume all dairy products.
For the other side of its research design, CEW went for the geek jugular, implying opponents of racial preferences are seeking to reduce the admissions process to a mere ranking of test scores, something no selective college would do and few candidates for admission to a selective college would advocate.
In its complaint against Harvard, SFFA explains:
The admissions plan Harvard advocated for in Bakke (the “Harvard Plan”) that promised to treat each applicant as an individual has always been an elaborate mechanism for hiding Harvard’s systematic campaign of racial and ethnic discrimination against certain disfavored classes of applicants. Indeed, the Harvard Plan was created for the specific purpose of discriminating against Jewish applicants. Put simply, Bakke “legitimated an admissions process that is inherently capable of gross abuse and that…has in fact been deliberately manipulated for the specific purpose of perpetuating religious and ethnic discrimination in college admissions.” Alan Dershowitz and Laura Hanft….Today it is used to hide intentional discrimination against Asian Americans. Harvard is using the same “holistic” code words to discriminate for the same invidious reasons and it is relying on the same pretextual excuses to justify its disparate treatment of another high-achieving racial and ethnic minority group. [Emphasis in original.]
In a recent press release announcing its lawsuit against Yale, SFFA plainly states: “Students applying to undergraduate and post-graduate programs should be judged on their individual talents, character, academic skills, extra-curricular achievements and socio-economic background but not the color of their skin.” The only relief SFFA seeks in its lawsuits is to prohibit admissions officers from using race as a factor in admissions decisions.
SFFA never asserts that holistic admissions should end. Rather, it alleges the colleges it has sued are corrupting holistic admissions in violation of the 14th Amendment and applicable federal and state laws to achieve a racial balance that suppresses Asian Americans and boosts blacks and Latinos. The denials are preposterous. This is the avowed purpose of widespread diversity, equity and inclusion preferences currently ruling American colleges and universities.
SFFA’s proposed findings of fact in the Harvard trial and its reply brief in the First Circuit Court of Appeals explain SFFA’s concern that Harvard uses personality and personal traits to limit admission of Asian Americans to its target quota. SFFA posits that these personal ratings are inaccurate, but even if accurate, impermissibly use culturally-influenced qualities to target Americans of Asian descent. Harvard has never disputed that Asian American applicants received significantly lower personal scores than black applicants, or that these low ratings disproportionately undermined their admission chances. While Harvard quibbles about the extent of the disadvantage, its core defense is that it is permissible to discriminate against Asian Americans in pursuit of racial diversity.
Interpolated Data Diminishes Reliability of “Thought Experiment”
CEW next compromises the reliability of its method, which it refers to as a “thought experiment.” To undertake its experiment, CEW required the ACT and SAT scores of all applicants to selective colleges and their races. It then had to create freshman classes based on a ranking of applicants.
The problem is that CEW could not obtain this data and so interpolated estimates. As CEW explained in its Appendix on Data Sources and Methodology:
The application data and the data in the test-only admissions thought experiment relied on the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09). HSLS:09 is a representative survey of the freshman high school class of 2009. . . .
The survey includes a composite college-admissions test score that is presented in SAT equivalent scores, but is in fact derived from SAT and ACT scores. However, many students who attended selective colleges did not report their scores. Since we are interested in the students who are displaced from selective colleges under test only admissions, we created estimated SAT scores for those who did not have them.
The estimate used a simple conditional regression model that was based on parental socioeconomic status and scores from an 11th-grade high school mathematics assessment. The R squared of this model was 62 percent. [My emphasis.]
An R squared of 62% means that if CEW’s model is correct, its method would fairly predict test scores about 62% of the time. Did CEW consider math particularly relevant for Asians? What is the R squared for the verbal section? What about the writing section of the SAT or the science section of the ACT?
While we don’t know the percentage of students for whom data was estimated, we know CEW lacked test scores for “many students.” At best, the reliability of CEW’s methodology is marginal. More likely, it is accurate as to direction but unreliable as to quantum.
Selective Editing and Headlines Misrepresent the Results
So, what about honesty in reporting the results? Strike three.
On July 15, 2021, as the Supreme Court considers whether to hear SFFA’s appeal from adverse rulings in its Harvard litigation, CEW issued a national press release and promoted its study on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Medium. The confusing two-tiered headline declares:
Under SAT-Only Admissions, Asian American Applicants to Selective Colleges Would Gain Fewer than 3,000 Seats Out of 120,000, Georgetown University Report Finds.
21% of Asian American students at the most selective colleges would not have been admitted under a test-only admissions policy.
CEW then observes: “Even if standardized test scores were the only factor considered in admissions, the Asian American share of enrollment at selective colleges would increase by no more than 2 percentage points.” The CEW report adds “This possible difference of 2 percentage points is a far cry from the dramatic changes implied by affirmative action critics.”
As CEW apparently intended, press coverage centered on the startling result that “21% of Asian American students at the most selective colleges would not have been admitted under a test-only admissions policy.” Likely, few understood or focused on the confusing references to gains of “less than 3,000 seats” or “enrollment increases of less than 2%” in the face of the stunning loss of 21% of all admissions and CEW’s strong assertions that SFFA is wrong.
The seemingly conflicting findings can be reconciled because the CEW study shows that if Asian American applicants are ranked solely by test scores, 21% of those admitted to selective colleges would be replaced by other Asian Americans. In fact, 3,000 additional Asian Americans would be admitted.
CEW trivializes 3,000 as “less than 2%” of the number of available seats. This is misleading. Aside from rounding 2.5% down to 2%, though the practice is to round .5% up or to simply disclose the additional decimal, the relevant base on which to calculate the discriminatory effect is the current number of Asian American students, not the number of all students. According to CEW, that number is about 14,500. Hence, the actual finding of CEW’s study is that if test scores alone were used for admission to selective colleges, the number of Asian American students admitted would increase from about 14,500 to 17,500. That is a 20.7% increase in the number of Asian Americans gaining admission to selective colleges.
The data is in CEW’s report, but that compelling statistic never appears in CEW’s report, press release, or webpage. Based on CEW’s other releases, if the same results pertained to black applicants, its headline likely would have protested: “Refusal to Adopt Test Scores Denies Admission to More than One in Five Qualified Black Students.”
I am not trying to have it both ways, decrying lack of validity and reliability and then using the CEW data as proof that Asian Americans are harmed by a specific outcome. CEW’s data unambiguously supports the harm, and its conclusions support 20.7%, but the actual percent may vary.
Regardless of reliability, CEW willfully mischaracterized SFFA’s positions, designed a false dichotomy, slanted its study’s results, wantonly shamed Asian Americans for being “used,” and sought broad exposure for its charade. Apparently, CEW’s perspective is that Asian Americans should stop fronting for white supremacists and politely accept their place.
The Georgetown McCourt CEW study is a hit job, plain and simple.
Image: Ben Mullins, Public Domain