by guest contributor Jeff Yang
Check out this interesting story in the New York Times: “Little Asia On the Hill,” the cover feature of this week’s “Education Life” supplement. It explores something that Californians have been aware of for almost half a decade now–in the wake of the repeal of affirmative action laws, Asian Americans have become an increasingly dominant force at U.S. elite colleges.
UC Berkeley, considered by many to be the best public university in the nation, and perhaps the world, is currently 41 percent Asian, a proportion that’s over three times higher than the percentage of Asian Americans in the California population, and almost 10 times higher than the percentage of Asians in the U.S. And Berkeley is just one example among many; along the bottom of the article runs a ticker-style strip recounting the Asian American percentage on top college campuses across the nation, from 13 percent at Princeton to 27 percent at Wellesley, 17 percent at University of Texas – Austin, and 27 percent at M.I.T.
This poses a dramatic challenge for the redress of historical discrimination: Black and Latino enrollment at top universities has suffered significantly over the past five years. But it should be noted as well that the net effect on white enrollment has essentially been zero–suggesting that the elimination of race-based affirmative action has been exacerbated by the preservation of other kinds of questionable preference (such as preferences for the children of alumni, who are said to have a “thumb on the scale” giving them a 20 percent greater chance of admission at most schools).
And this is ultimately unfair to Asian Americans as well. If college admissions are to be a true meritocracy, why protect certain classes of applicants who are mostly white and mostly privileged? Legacies make up an average of 10 to 20 percent of admissions; at Ivy League colleges, legacy applicant pools range from 75 percent to 90 percent white.
But even eliminating legacy preferences won’t resolve this situation on its own. Nor are there easy and good solutions that don’t penalize groups or individuals in fundamentally life-changing ways. But there aren’t easy, good solutions to anything, really; other than on late night infomercials, “good” almost always goes hand in hand with “difficult and painful.”
That said, I’m intrigued with what’s happening at these, uh, Historically Asian Colleges. Critics have said that Asian grads of places like UC Irvine (majority Asian American), Berkeley, and UCLA (the “University of Caucasians Lost among Asians”) are not being prepared for the real world. They also say that Asian American students spend all their time in libraries, don’t contribute to “student culture,” and tend to seclude themselves into ethnic clusters, refusing even to interact across ethnic lines, much less racial ones.
Based on my own experiences visiting these campuses, I pretty much wholeheartedly disagree: That depiction of Asian Americans is at best a generalization and at worst a rationale for outright discrimination.
I also think that spending four (or so) years in an environment where you’re part of the “mainstream”–as opposed to an outsider, an exception, an alien–is incredibly empowering to this generation of Asian Americans. And when I say generation, I mean generation: 8 in 10 Asian Americans attend college, meaning that for Asian American Millennials, this four-year period of normality is essentially the norm.
I predict that this will be the most important generation in Asian American history–with more leaders, more outstanding achievement, and more social progress for our community than any preceding it, including my own (which I’m largely writing off; all in all, we’ve been like a lull between the pioneering generation of the 60s and 70s and the emerging one of the 00s and beyond).
I’d love to hear from those of you who attended or are attending heavily Asian American colleges, to get your opinions on the experience. In fact, I’d love to hear from all of you, to get your thoughts on this topic for a possible future column. Mail me with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. And Happy New Year!