Racial Distributions in Top University Admissions

Originally posted Dec. 3, 2011

University admissions committees (UACs) at top schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT, for the purposes of this essay) practice affirmative action. This much is extremely obvious. Proportional to their capabilities, blacks and Hispanics are overrepresented, Asians, Indians, Jews underrepresented, and Caucasians probably overrepresented.

Anyway, the real question I'd like to ask is: Why do UACs practice affirmative action, in the case of black people and Hispanic people? Why do UACs practice reverse affirmative action, in the case of Asians and Jews?

Malcolm Gladwell writes that in the 1920s:

"Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard's president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school: The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate... because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also.

This references several popular theories about racial distributions. One is that a skewed racial distribution will result in fewer alumni donations. Another is that a skewed racial distribution will destroy the prestige of the school. Broadly, these are all correct. However, there is an underlying explanation that Gladwell misses.

Fundamentally, the issue is one of supply and demand. Top companies and firms have a certain demand for people of each ethnicity, and top universities supply this demand. Thus, the suboptimal strategy used by UACs is really because UACs are mirroring the demand of top companies/firms. Therefore, it is the top companies/firms that are making suboptimal hiring decisions. This is due to several factors: "Diversity" as a politically desirable buzzword; firms hire blacks to stem accusations of racial discrimination; the general population would rather conduct business with a white person. Based on these factors, as well as other more minor factors, firms will make their hiring decisions, establishing a certain demand for people of each ethnicity.

Universities, in turn, will then attempt to match this demand in their incoming classes. If a university were to accept above-demand of one ethnicity, then they would not all get jobs at top companies. This dilutes the prestige of that university. If a university were to accept below-demand of one ethnicity, then they are losing spots at top companies, who will be forced to hire people of this ethnicity from other schools. This lowers the prestige of that university. Therefore, it is in the university's advantage to accept a racial distribution that mirrors the demand of top companies/firms. You could explain other popular explanations for UACs' selection strategy as side effects or different rephrasings of the explanations I have given.

The good news is that competition will drive companies to hire the best people, limited only by the factors listed above. Therefore, as people slowly become acclimated to changing ethnic distributions, we can expect a slow progression to a world where pure meritocracy rules.