Degrees from the Ivy League colleges — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and their peers — are passports to elite positions on Wall Street and in Washington. This month’s issue of The American Conservative carries an important article by its publisher, Ronald K. Unz, making the case that the Ivy League admissions process is corrupt and arbitrary, and that their student bodies are neither the best and the brightest, nor representative of the nation as a whole.
Unz, himself a Harvard graduate, said the admissions process at Ivy League universities is a subjective process, based largely on interviews supposedly to determine whether the applicant is a well-rounded person. This system came into existence as a covert means to cap the numbers of Jewish students without setting explicit quotas, he wrote; now it is used to cap the numbers of Asian-Americans.
A century ago, students of the Ivy League were predominantly the sons and the white Protestant upper class, who attended as much for social life and sports as for academics. Unz said applicants from such backgrounds, the children of distinguished alumni or large contributors to the college endowment funds, still get in as a matter of course. Some provision is made to help black and Hispanic students. The losers are Asian-Americans and non-Jewish working-class whites.
I am uncomfortable with sweeping generalizations about broad racial, religious and ethnic categories. Each consists of sub-groups which differ from each other, and each group and sub-group consists of unique individuals with a wider range of traits than the averages of the different groups. You can’t tell anything about an individual’s intellectual attainments, or anything else, based on their demographic characteristics. But unfortunately, race, religion and ethnicity matter in American life and simplifications and generalizations are necessary for understanding.
The following tables show the relative rise of Asian-American students and the relative decline of Jewish students in high school math and science competitions.
The charts above indicate that Asian-Americans don’t get a fair shake, based on their intellectual attainments. They indicate, more surprisingly, that average Jewish intellectual attainment has crashed. The percentage of Jewish high school students who win science competitions has declined dramatically in the past couple of decades, but not the high percentage of Jewish admissions to Ivy League universities—in sharp contrast to admissions to California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where enrollment seems to be based more on intellectual merit or at least on test scores. Asian-Americans stand in the same position in American academic life that the children of Jewish immigrants stood 75 years ago.
The implication of the data is that the reason for large numbers of Jewish students currently at Ivy League colleges is not that so many of them are hard-working, intellectual super-achievers as in previous generations, but that so many of their parents are members of the upper classes.
The Asian-American population is increasing, but their enrollment in elite colleges—except for Caltech—is not. The most obvious explanation is that there are quotas—explicit or informal—that are holding them back.
I’m uncomfortable with Unz’s article and the information in these charts, especially the implications concerning Jewish enrollment in Ivy League universities versus white Christian working-class people—implications which will be welcomed by racists and anti-Semites. But facts and logic are the best guide to truth, not my comfort level.
One criticism of Unz’s article is that he counts people in different ethnic groups based on their last names. This may not be valid, especially when so many Americans are of mixed heritage. My name is Phil Ebersole. During my lifetime, many people have made wrong assumptions about my race, religion and ethnicity, based on my name and appearance.
Another criticism is that Unz’s claim of declining Jewish intellectual attainment is based on declining high school science prizes, and this doesn’t take into account attainments in literature, philosophy and scholarship. Maybe Jewish intellectual interests have shifted from the sciences to the humanities. Maybe smart Jewish students all flock to Harvard, Yale and Princeton and smart Asian-American students flock to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Caltech.
I think both these criticisms have merit, but do not invalidate Unz’s conclusions. I’ll be interested to see more commentary on his article. I’m surprised there has been so little criticism so far. I will have more to say in my next post.
Double click on the charts to enlarge them.
Click on The Myth of American Meritocracy for Ron Unz’s full article. All the charts above are from this article.
Click on Paying Tuition to a Gigantic Hedge Fund for a sidebar by Ron Unz claiming that Harvard University is more of an investment fund than an educational institution.
Click on Quantitative Sources and Methods for Ron Unz’s documentation of his claims.
For rebuttal, click on Meritocracy, Jews and the Liberal Arts by Samuel Goldman.
For more comment, click on The Myth of Affirmative Action by Dan McCarthy.
Click on Harvard as Hedge Fund: Harvard’s Reply for Harvard’s rebuttal and Ron Unz’s additional comment.
For more rebuttal, click on The claim that Harvard admissions discriminate in favor of Jews? I don’t see it by Andrew Gelman. [Added 2/16/13]
Ron Unz was born in 1961 and grew up in California. He earned a bachelor of science degree in physics from Harvard and studied advanced physics at Stanford University but didn’t get a doctoral degree. He started a software company called Wall Street Analytics which was bought by Moody’s Investors Service in 2006. He was active in California politics, and founded English for the Children, an organization opposed to bilingual education. He became publisher of The American Conservative in 2007.
Click on This Man Controls California for a 1999 profile of Ron Unz in The New Republic
Click on Ron Unz – Writings and Perspective | Views, Opinions and Notes for his web log.