Li’s quest for equality ignores the real issues

If it accomplishes nothing else (which, realistically, it won’t), the civil rights complaint leveled by Jian Li ’10 against Princeton will have at least helped Yale find common ground. And maybe that common ground is skepticism of the merits of his case, but still, hooray. Much as I’m anti-impressed with Li’s much-publicized SATs, though (ooh, a perfect score — novel), discrimination against Asians in admissions deserves a better hearing than his complaint will provide.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Office for Civil Rights reopened his petition, which initially had been rejected, after Li appealed with additional evidence — the lower test scores and grades of a Princeton-admitted white classmate. On the grounds of his perfect SAT score (in case you missed it: PERFECT SAT SCORE), his SAT II scores, his GPA and a 2004 study by Princeton professors detailing the admissions advantage of each ethnicity (Espenshade, Chung and Walling), he alleges that Princeton denied him admission because of his race. Li’s aim is the suspension of federal financial assistance to Princeton until it “discontinues discrimination against Asian-Americans in all forms by eliminating race preferences, legacy preferences, and athlete preferences.”

The possibility of admissions discrimination against Asians is real, especially if that study is to be believed: It translates the statistical advantage enjoyed by each race into SAT points on the 1600-point scale, giving African-American applicants 230 points, Hispanics 185, and Asians negative 50. (Whites get zero, as they’re the baseline relative to which the others are calculated.) After perusing the study (trying desperately to understand its statistical jibber-jabs), I don’t think it’s airtight — its authors use SAT scores and GPAs as the sole indicators of merit, and they don’t account for socioeconomic background, which could explain variation. Still, it seems improbable that Asians are 50 SAT points wealthier than whites.

It stands to reason that if specific groups are given preference, as Princeton has confirmed in Inside Higher Ed, someone’s going to lose out in the zero-sum admissions process. Unless Princeton decides to use stacks of exclusively white high-schoolers’ applications for craft projects (perhaps delightful paper-mache lions and unicorns and other fantastical creatures), Asians are going to get boxed out. Espenshade and Chung’s subsequent 2005 study seems to support this: Based on SAT scores in the absence of racial preferences (and socioeconomic ones, as they neglected those again), white enrollment would remain constant, while admission of blacks and Hispanics would be slashed dramatically — and four out of every five newly opened spots would go to an Asian.

Of course, an incoming class composed entirely of SAT all-stars would be a little too Tri-Lam, which is why colleges look for other criteria, like a calculatedly self-deprecating essay about a summer community-service experience. And I have no problem with colleges using a sliding scale to accommodate lower-income applicants who can’t afford SAT tutoring or snazzy extracurriculars (like the money-smoking team). But colleges can already determine socioeconomic background, so using race as a stand-in seems lazy at best. As long as something so imprecise as ethnic preference is used, qualified kids will be unjustly turned away. And accepted by Yale, I suppose.

Although Li’s case is hardly clear-cut, neither is the larger phenomenon. His SAT scores are unremarkable, and those coupled with his grades aren’t enough to prove Princeton’s wrongdoing. Although it’s not part of the investigation, he was apparently president of the American Field Service and did a community-service project in Costa Rica; truly, he is a unique and beautiful snowflake. Moreover, the study he cites, though done by Princeton professors, didn’t even necessarily include data from Princeton’s own admissions office; the participating schools were anonymous. And it’s tough to be confident of widespread discrimination. In the News (“Anti-Asian bias alleged,” 11/15), Chinese-American Student Association President Aaron Meng ’08 makes a good point: While he thinks the issue deserves investigation, he suggests, “Asian culture has taught students to place more emphasis on studying than on partaking in creative activities, which may put Asian-American students at a disadvantage in the admissions process.” I’m not going to pin down all Asians as nerds, but there’s certainly a possibility that cultural factors are making Asians less competitive in areas outside the scope of the Princeton study. Thanks to the opacity of admissions at private institutions, though, there’s not much way to tell.

This question deserves an answer. Princeton’s spokeswoman has said the school could release its admissions data if there are enough calls for it and if the release would be “in the public interest.” That sort of popular demand is necessary, as is a hard look at racial preferences in admissions, but Li’s complaint isn’t likely to inspire either. He wants to be a trailblazer for civil rights; too bad he’s just another reg.

Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.