Asians in Universities: A Canada-US Comparison
A recent Maclean’s magazine article reported that some white Canadians students worried about the growing Asian and Asian-Canadian presence of university campuses. Originally titled, “‘Too Asian’?” (now retitled “The Enrollment Controversy”), the piece noted:
When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.” …
Alexandra… explains her little brother wants to study hard, but is also looking for a good time—which rules out U of T, a school with an academic reputation that can be a bit of a killjoy.
Or, as Alexandra puts it—she asked that her real name not be used in this article, and broached the topic of race at universities hesitantly—a “reputation of being Asian.” ….
…an “Asian” school has come to mean one that is so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Indeed, Rachel, Alexandra and her brother belong to a growing cohort of student that’s eschewing some big-name schools over perceptions that they’re “too Asian.”….
…“Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say). Asian kids, meanwhile, say they are resented for taking the spots of white kids. “At graduation a Canadian—i.e. ‘white’—mother told me that I’m the reason her son didn’t get a space in university and that all the immigrants in the country are taking up university spots,” says Frankie Mao, a 22-year-old arts student at the University of British Columbia. “I knew it was wrong, being generalized in this category,” says Mao, “but f–k, I worked hard for it.”
The article has generated a good deal of controversy, along with spirited defence from Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail and fierce criticism from Jeet Heer in The National Post (as well as Heer’s response to Wente in The Walrus). There is no question that the original article, by Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler, made some sloppy arguments. As Heer correctly observes, it over-generalizes based on only a few schools and few departments, it lumps Asian foreign students with Asian-Canadians, counts east Asians but not south Asians, dismisses the plight of non-Asian foreign students, ignores working class white students (and any notion of class really) and stereotypes many groups unfairly.
And yet, Heer’s criticism of the article “obfuscates” (to use his word) as much as Wente’s defense of it does. He misses two crucial aspects of the story: 1) the potential pitfalls of Canada’s purely numbers-oriented university admissions system and 2) the very interesting–from an objective, academic perspective–statistical over-representation of students of Asian background in elite Canadian and American universities.
The Maclean’s article, along with Wente’s defense, runs off a number of statistics: 38% of Vancouver’s University of British Columbia students self-identify as white, compared to 43% as Korean, Chinese, or Japanese, in a city in which only 21.5% of the population falls into one of these three groups. In California, Asians make up 40% of the student body in public universities, despite only forming 13% of the state population. In the United States more broadly, Asians are 5% of the population but between 10 to 40% at elite colleges. They make up especially large portions at science oriented schools like Caltech and MIT.
I don’t have access to the data on-hand, but I have no reason to dispute these numbers. Rather than run away from them, however, I think we (referring to those people, regardless of race or ethnicity, interested in higher education) should try to ask questions: what do these numbers mean? How can we explain them? And to what extent, if any, should our investigation affect education policy?
The authors of the Maclean’s article insist, “that Asian students work harder is a fact born out by hard data.” I’m not sure how “hard” the data are, but I suspect that there is a great deal of truth to this assertion. But this “fact” plays out differently in different contexts. Certain Asian groups are statistically more over-represented in public American universities, Canadian universities, and science-oriented universities (CalTech, MIT) than they are in top American private schools, like the Ivies, Stanford, Duke, and elite liberal arts colleges. Why is this the case?
I’ll try to answer this question with a personal anecdote. When I applied to college, I applied to only one Canadian school, McGill. I wanted to apply for a scholarship there. In order to do so, I needed an “R” score of 33. I was never quite clear on what the “R” score was, except that it was some figure tabulated using my grades in CEGEP (a two-year non-remedial form of junior college that Quebec students attend before beginning their undergraduate career) as well as some grades from the end of my high school career. When I was applying to college, my “R” score stood at 32.9. I thought, surely, at only a fraction of a point under the requirement, some exception could be made. I called the admissions office. My father, who is a professor at McGill, called the admissions office. There would be no exceptions. I tried to tell them that I participated in extra-curricular activities. That my grades had steadily improved, and would continue to improve in my final semester at CEGEP (they did). None of this mattered. Scholarships to Canadian universities, like admissions, are a numbers game. If you don’t make the cut-off, you’re out. My R score was good enough to get in to McGill (which I did) but not good enough to even apply for a scholarship.
This was in stark contrast to my experience applying to American colleges. I applied to all the Ivy League colleges (except Dartmouth, which my parents deemed too goyish). Every one of them read my entire application. Canadian university applications often require only a transcript. American schools want much more. Beyond transcripts and standardized test scores, elite American schools typically require an application essay (sometimes multiple essays), a CV and letters of recommendation. They also accepted poetry, artwork, musical recordings, and other evidence of extra-curricular talent. I submitted the 100 page non-fiction self-published book on baseball that I wrote at age 13 (my wife submitted her award-winning photography portfolio). I got in to Harvard, and off I went.
In setting up this contrast, the strengths and weaknesses of each approach appear quite clearly to me now. On the one hand, there’s something wonderful about the more purely “meritocratic” Canadian system. School is about academics: those with the highest grades should get in. While the Canadian system favours the wealthy, who benefit from tutors, better schools, more access to books and other class-based advantages, the American system is even more class-biased. Entire industries serve to help richer students best the SAT, write the perfect application essay and sufficiently pad their resumes. Canadian schools also lack the resources to use the more “holistic” approach that American schools do for each and every one of their applicants. Instinctively, I sympathize with the Canadian admissions system, even if I had my own (albeit very minor and ultimately inconsequential) difficulties with it.
There are benefits to the American holistic approach, though. I clearly didn’t suffer because my scholarship application was not considered. But it’s certainly conceivable that some Canadian students do suffer: students from under-privileged backgrounds who have to work jobs which cut into their studying time, or have to help raise brothers and sisters because their single parent is at work. These are the kinds of circumstances that are often communicated in application essays, which Canadian universities, because they don’t require them, never see. Indeed, even if poorer students are too ashamed to mention these things in essays, American schools demand to know the incomes of their applicants’ families, what schools their parents went to, and yes, their race and ethnicity. All these factors are carefully considered in weighing applications. Some students are advantaged by being “legacies,” i.e. their parents went to Harvard, or because they are recruited athletes (by far the most advantaged) and so they get in as well. But others are “advantaged” because they grew up on welfare, or one of their parents died when they were in elementary school, or any other reason that might compensate for a less-than-perfect academic record.
I’m frankly not sure which system is better. But implicit in the absurd and offensive question “Too Asian?” are more reasonable questions as to whether there are other admissions processes which might be more “fair,” at least in terms of admitting people of lower socio-economic status.
In comparing the article to anti-Jewish quotas at Ivy League schools before WW2, Heer misses the irony. Today, quotas in American colleges, which exist more informally than they did back then, serve to INCREASE the presence of disadvantaged minorities, namely Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. At least that is the theory. In the famous 1978 US Supreme Court Case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke which enshrined the principle of Affirmative Action into American law, quotas were rejected, but race was allowed to be considered as a factor in university admissions in order to promote the court-sanctioned goal of diversity.
And so we get to the crux of the matter. Are Asians “disadvantaged” and do they promote or stifle “diversity”?”
Of course this is a matter of opinion. The important opinion here is those of admissions committees at selective American schools. Without all the data, I can only speculate as to their criteria. My suspicion is that Asian immigrants might be treated as somewhat disadvantaged, and thus given some preference, while the evidence seems to show that native born Asian-Americans are penalized because there are so many strong applicants that fit that ethnic profile. I don’t know if the different immigration policies in each country lead to large differences in the make-up of the Asian communities therein. Canada tends to favor educated, middle-class immigrants, so it’s possible that Asian-Canadians already have a leg-up, though I’ve heard similar theories about Asian Americans.
Again, it’s important to remember not to lump all Asians together: Chinese and Korean and south-Asian students perform better, on average, than Filipinos and Pacific Islanders. I don’t know the data for Cambodians, Thai, Vietnamese, and other groups. But the point is that even among Asian groups, and within those groups, large differences exist.
Also, while students of colour (in Canada, called “visible minorities”) face racial discrimination, many of these students at elite universities come from relatively privileged backgrounds. So determining who if anyone deserves preferential treatment in admissions requires looking at race and class. Some even argue that class-based preferences make more sense, to make sure that the iconic white “coal miner’s daughter” is not passed over in favour of a wealthy suburban African American or Latino applicant.
The take-away here is: the issue is complicated. Canadian universities’ relatively simple “meritocratic” approach avoids these difficulties. This is another huge point in its favour.
At Harvard, they used to say that they could fill their class with people who got 1600 on their SATs, or people who went to Stuyvesant High School in NYC, but that wouldn’t create the diverse student body they’re looking for. This leads to questions as to what the university’s mission is all about: is it to educate in the classroom and prepare students for careers that require some form of expertise, or is it to expose them to different cultures, to build future leaders and active participants in the local, national and international community? As an aspiring academic, I’m sympathetic to the former goal, though I also understand the desire for the latter. My impression is that in Europe, higher education seems to be about the schooling, not about “campus life.” In the United States, it’s the opposite: a rite of passage on the way to adulthood. Canada might be somewhere in the middle. And maybe that’s the right place to be.
Last, there’s the issue of explanation. Why do some Asian and Asian-American and Asian-Canadian groups perform so well in school? There are probably lots of good historical, cultural and socioeconomic explanations. But the point is that we should work to answer these questions, rather than run away from them. Let me refer to the 2004 essay by historian David Hollinger, which argues that “the failure to pursue this question implicitly fuels largely un-expressed speculations that Jews are, after all, superior.” Hollinger is right. And if you switch Jews for Asians then you have the Maclean’s story. So lets ask the question, and try to answer it.
Postscript: Since I began writing this post, Maclean’s has responded to the controversy surrounding the initial article with an emphatic defence of “merit.” It reiterates the claim that Canadian universities are “pure meritocracies.” The editors “find the trend toward race-based admission policies in some American schools deplorable.” They write:
Our article notes that Canadian universities select students regardless of race or creed. That, in our view, is the best and only acceptable approach: merit should be the sole criteria for entrance to higher education in Canada, and universities should always give preference to our best and brightest regardless of cultural background.
Again, this is true and isn’t: Canadian schools may not not discriminate based on race or creed, but they still do favour the middle and upper classes, who apply with distinct advantages. Still, I think the Canadian university admissions system is probably more fair than the American version. Last, I think the Maclean’s editors are right: Asian and Asian-Canadian academic success, like all academic success, should be celebrated. That way, humour like that of the Family Guy clip above becomes funny rather than offensive.