There are several requisite, traditional memes played out in the media each spring that signify the end of another college admissions cycle. 


The opera ain’t over until there’s an article about this being the most competitive admissions year in history, with record numbers of applications and record low admit rates at many institutions (Let’s all pat ourselves on the back for a job well done).  That article is often accompanied by a sidebar about the student with “stellar” grades and scores Wait Listed at his or her public flagship university (I always suspect there’s more to the story). 


And then there is the profile of the student admitted to all eight Ivies.  I’m not sure that’s something to be celebrated or glorified.  It sends the wrong messages about college admission, from perpetuating Ivy-lust to rewarding collecting acceptances as trophies to ignoring the importance of fit, accepting uncritically that Ivy League institutions are indistinguishable from each other.


We may be watching a new college admissions meme in the making. 


Two weeks ago the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education alleging that Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth unlawfully discriminate against Asian-American applicants in the college admissions process. 


AACE is the same group that filed a complaint a year ago against Harvard on behalf of 64 Asian-American groups (more than 130 groups signed on to the current complaint).  That complaint was dismissed last July because a similar lawsuit was being litigated in federal court, but a similar, older complaint against Princeton was dismissed by the Office of Civil Rights last September.


So why go after Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth now?  Are those three doing something that frames the argument for unlawful discrimination in a different way than the Harvard/Princeton suits? Does AACE, like the student seeking admission to all eight Ivies, aspire to file a complaint against each Ivy member?  According to the AACE complaint, Brown and Dartmouth have the lowest admit rates for Asian-American applicants.  Yale was included because it destroys admission records (and potential evidence of discrimination) for its law school.


I was interviewed last spring by NPR following the filing of the suit against Harvard and wrote a blog post about the subject as well.  My position at the time was that I didn’t see evidence of discrimination per se as much as impact from the nature of selective admission.  I continue to believe that, but I can’t prove it, because I have never sat on an Ivy League admissions committee.


The evidence cited in the complaint is eye-catching but also circumstantial.  The Asian-American college-age population doubled from 1995 to 2011 without any increase in the percentage of Asian Americans enrolled in the Ivies.   The complaint claims that Asian-American enrollment in the Ivies is “capped” at 16%, a figure significantly lower than the percentage earning honors like National Merit Semifinalist and Presidential Scholar.  It also cites a study conducted by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and coauthor Alexandra Radford estimating that Asian-Americans have to score 140 points higher on the SAT than whites and 450 points higher than African-Americans to have an equal shot at admission to the Ivies.


But do those facts prove that the Ivies are engaged in a “covert and insidious scheme to enforce race-based racial quotas” or that Asian Americans are discriminated against like Jewish applicants in the early part of the 20th century?  Are Asian-American applicants victims of discrimination or victims of selective admission?


In the Princeton case the Office of Civil Rights concluded it is the latter.  The challenges faced by Asian-American applicants are challenges faced by applicants of all backgrounds.  In an admissions environment where only 1 in 20 highly-qualified applicants will be successful, lots of superb candidates are overlooked.  Among applicants for the Princeton Class of 2010, only 18% of school valedictorians were admitted, and more than half of those with perfect 2400 SAT scores were unsuccessful applicants.  Princeton admitted 1800 applicants, but 4800 had SAT Critical Reading scores of 750 or better and 6300 had SAT Math scores of 750 or better.  In that kind of competition, no student has an academic record that guarantees admission.  To borrow a phrase from logic, superb academic credentials are “necessary but not sufficient.”


But are Asian Americans underrepresented?  A UCLA study by Dr. Richard Sander and Medha Uppala of Asian-American applicants at three of the most selective Ivies showed that Asian Americans send 27% of score reports but comprise only 17-20% of those admitted.  At the same time, if the Asian-American college-age population is 5% of the national population, Ivy enrollment of 17-20% hardly qualifies as underrepresention.


One of the key arguments made by AACE is that “holistic” admission is a vehicle for subtle bias against Asian Americans.  It is true that holistic admission can provide a shroud masking how decisions are made, with different criteria being decisive for different applicants.  But I think the AACE is wrong on this point, partly because its definition of “holistic admission” is antiquated.  It equates holistic admission with the desire to admit well-rounded students, a desire that disappeared a long time ago.  Today highly-selective colleges and universities are looking to admit a well-rounded class made up of “angular” individuals who are exceptional in some way.  It is that emphasis on the well-rounded class with “uniqueness” as a virtue that produces the issues objected to in the AACE complaint, not holistic admission.


I suspect there is another factor at work here.  The desire to craft a class can easily become a kind of reverse engineering, where the shape of the class is established up front based on institutional goals and priorities and individual admission decisions made only insofar as they fit that freshman class jigsaw puzzle.  That approach is great for the institution, but not so much for any individual who doesn’t happen to help meet those admission goals.  That may be a more accurate explanation than bias for why the percentage of Asian Americans varies so little from year-to-year. Does the desire to craft the class lead to bias, conscious or unconscious, against some applicants?


The complaint from AACE represents the “back side” of the Supreme Court’s consideration of affirmative action in Fisher v. Texas.  In that case the University of Texas has argued that a “critical mass” of students from underrepresented groups is necessary for educational reasons, which is why there is a need for affirmative action beyond that produced by the Texas Top 10% law.  How that critical mass is reached is at the heart of the case.  Is the admissions process reverse engineered to achieve that critical mass, and does the end justify the means?  That issue has relevance for selective admission far beyond the Fisher case.


What does affirmative action have to do with Asian Americans?  According to a 2005 study by two Princeton scholars, one of them the aforementioned Thomas Espenshade, of the impact of ending affirmative action, acceptance rates for African-American and Hispanic applicants would decrease significantly without affirmative action.  The beneficiaries of such a move would be primarily Asian-American applicants.  If selective college admission is a zero-sum game, advantage for one set of applicants means disadvantage for another.


We have now had two consecutive springs of complaints about Ivy League admissions discrimination against Asian-American applicants, with five of the eight named.  If it is true that something qualifies as an innovation the first time you do it and tradition the second time, ladies and gentlemen, we have a tradition. The clock is running for Columbia, Cornell, and Penn.