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The Price of Admissions

Something like the end of affirmative action has happened before—and, for better or worse, it completely changed American elite culture.

(Photo by: Sergi Reboredo/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Supreme Court ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard is an unusual one insofar as no one really knows what its effect will be. What happens now—will it be enforced? Can it be enforced? What would enforcing it look like?

The ruling says that Harvard may not discriminate on the basis of race in its admissions policies. This means the affirmative action program Harvard has been using to increase its number of black and Hispanic students is unlawful.


The majority opinion says specifically that universities are not allowed to recreate their affirmative action policies by giving the same boost they used to give for race to students who talk about “adversity” (i.e., race) in their application essays, as many schools have been hinting that they will do. “Universities may not simply establish through the application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” the chief justice wrote. On the other hand, the ruling can’t possibly mean that Harvard is required to admit students on the basis of test scores and grades alone. 

The Harvard freshman class of 2025 was 24 percent Asian, 53 percent white, and 16 percent black. A 2013 study found that without affirmative action Harvard would be 43 percent Asian, 38 percent white, and less than 1 percent black.

Clearly the Supreme Court wants Harvard to move away from the first set of numbers and in the direction of the second—but how far? 

Neither logic nor the law can give us an answer to that. Obviously Harvard must be allowed to take into account whether an applicant has demonstrated grit and determination against adversity. But what if the admissions office simply stipulates that being black or Hispanic in racist America constitutes adversity in itself? That would be a transparent attempt to circumvent the law. Unless admissions officers genuinely believe that—which, to be honest, they probably do. 

The only thing to do is what everyone in the affirmative action debate has done from the beginning: figure out what kind of outcome we want and trust the Supreme Court to backfill a logical justification later.


There are many reasons why Harvard will never admit a freshman class that is half Asian and less than 1 percent black. Letting an important American minority group go almost entirely unrepresented in the Ivy League would be politically unpalatable. Letting a small demographic minority (America is less than 6 percent Asian) be so overrepresented would have consequences, too—for campus culture, for Harvard’s reputation, and quite possibly in terms of backlash once those students took their place in the country’s institutions of power.

If you know your history, you recognize these as the same arguments that were made about Jewish students in the 1920s. Jewish students would alter the atmosphere on campus, with their single-minded focus on academics; admitting a class that was 40 percent Jewish would be a recipe for antisemitic backlash; therefore, we must impose a cap on their share of the freshman class.

So history is where we should look for guidance now. The arguments for Jewish quotas were all based on predictions about the future: If we admit unlimited numbers of Jewish students, then this bad outcome will follow. In the end, quotas were abolished, and Jewish admissions did rise. How did those predictions fare? The Supreme Court has essentially instructed the Ivy League to lift its de facto quota on Asians, so history surely offers a lesson here.

There were three basic arguments made by Ivy League administrators in favor of capping Jewish admissions at around 10 to 15 percent, more than their share of the American population but lower than their academic achievement would warrant. If I may ventriloquize:

1. Ever heard the Yogi Berra-ism “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”? Students come to Ivy League schools in order to hang around the sons of the upper class. The networking that comes with that, and the social polish, are what people pay for. If they discover they are instead paying to hang around the sons of dentists and garment workers, then no one will want to come here anymore—including, eventually, the sons of dentists and garment workers. It will be an admissions death spiral.

2. If we admit a class that is 40 percent Jewish, then 30 years from now Wall Street and the State Department will be 40 percent Jewish, and that will be bound to elicit an antisemitic backlash among their peers and in the public.

3. Universities are places of acculturation as much as education. They exist to impart values. This does not happen in a classroom but by osmosis from the campus community. If an alien culture attains a critical mass in the student body, then that acculturation will not take place, even if those newcomers desire to assimilate to the former majority culture, which in this case it is not clear that they do. We want to pass our distinctive New England Protestant culture on to our children. If that doesn’t happen at Yale, where will it? We would have to go build another university for that purpose, and we already did that. We built Yale from nothing. The only reason you want to come here is because of what we have achieved. It is our inheritance, and we have a duty to preserve it, which means admitting outsiders in modest numbers compatible with cultural continuity.

Argument three also came in a more hostile variation, defining the nature of the cultural differences between the two demographics in terms of antisemitic stereotypes. But no one denied that cultural differences existed, and in some cases the differences were quantifiable, such as being more likely to live off campus and eschew extracurriculars in order to save money, as was the case with the many Jewish townies from New Haven who attended Yale.

How did these arguments fare in reality? The first two predictions clearly failed. The Ivy League schools dismantled their quota systems around 1960, and by 1986 the New York Times estimated that Yale’s student body was around 30 percent Jewish. The admissions death spiral never materialized. Quite the opposite: Ivy League schools have become more influential and admission to them more sought after since the 1960s. As for antisemitic backlash, that, too, never came. Polarization between college-educated and non-college-educated Americans did increase, and Ivy League elites are distrusted and resented as never before, but that alienation has not taken the form of ethnic hatred.

But the third prediction has been vindicated. WASP culture has ceased to exist. It had been transmitted through institutions like Yale and Harvard, and when these institutions were taken over and coopted for other purposes, that cultural transmission didn’t go someplace else. The transmission ceased, and the culture died. Maybe you see this as a tragedy and maybe you don’t, but no one can deny that the world depicted in the novels of Louis Auchincloss or J.P. Marquand has vanished from the face of the earth. Significantly, there is not a single WASP among the eight university presidents of the Ivy League today. 

Each of these arguments can easily be adapted to the present situation.

1. If Harvard admits all the Asians whose scores justify it, it will become Caltech and no one will want to go there.

2. If Harvard admits all the Asians whose scores justify it, then in 30 years we will have a 50 percent Asian ruling class, and that will not be popular with Middle America.

3. The culture of the Ivy League will change if their student bodies are 50 percent Asian. It will come more to resemble immigrant culture and the cultures from which those immigrants come, especially in the age of globalization and multiculturalism when the pressures of assimilation are less.

My guess is that history will repeat itself with numbers one and two. Harvard will not become Caltech if it admits a class that is half Asian. There will be no student exodus; the brand is too strong. Backlash is a bigger worry, especially since the population of Asians is so much larger than that of Jews, both in terms of the number in the United States and their total number on the planet. There is a real chance that they could dominate our upper class, not just relative to their share of the population but in absolute terms. Growing tensions with China obviously complicate everything further.

But the left has always said that backlash is no reason not to do the right thing. Racists don’t get a veto. If the rest of America doesn’t like the idea of a ruling class dominated by Asians, then maybe they should study harder.

That leaves number three. The culture on campus will change if its demographics are altered. The question becomes, how will it change and will the change be desirable? Here we venture onto dangerous ground, because in the current year we are not supposed to make generalizations. But anyone who has spent time in China or India knows that those countries have cultures that are foreign to our own, and immigrants from those countries preserve elements of that culture even after many generations. Perhaps it will be safest to pose a series of questions, with the necessary caveat that every member of a culture will have different answers and for any culture the answers to these questions are not binary but a spectrum:

Do parents tell their children to follow their passions and do what makes them happy, or to pursue worldly success? Do they say things like “the important thing is to try your best” and “the journey is the destination,” or do they teach them to focus on winning? Is cheating viewed as a genuine outrage, or a venial sin that many people get away with when they can? Are relations between superiors and subordinates characterized by egalitarianism and frank speaking, or are people inclined to treat those above them and below them in various hierarchies differently? Is free speech prized as a good in itself or is group comity a competing value? Is it gauche to flaunt one’s wealth, such that even the wealthy in society claim to value “experiences” over “things,” or is it basically acceptable for rich teenagers to drive expensive cars and live in large off-campus apartments? Does family have a claim on a person’s time, money, and space after they graduate, or are you basically your own person once you become an adult?

None of these questions has a right answer. Clearly the broadly “Asian” constellation of answers has something going for it, since their kids are outcompeting native whites. It also diminishes their motivation to assimilate into the American way of doing things if the Asian or Asian-American way leads to greater academic success.

That being said, I can’t help noticing that it is Asian immigrants who are moving to our country and not the other way around. The Ivy League didn’t start out as a place for handing out golden tickets. The reason we have golden tickets to hand out is because our way of doing things works well. And regardless of whether different cultures might be superior by certain objective measures like SAT scores, the American way is ours, and I, for one, am attached to it.

The lesson of the quota era is that schools like Harvard and Yale can admit large numbers of newcomers without affecting their power or their prestige—but not without affecting their culture. Most people today would say that the WASP culture killed by the midcentury admissions changes deserved to die. Personally, I disagree. But the pertinent question now is whether the American culture that exists on Ivy League campuses today also deserves to die, or the people there want to preserve the schools’ current values with some continuity. If they do, then I do not think we are required to interpret the Supreme Court as having declared that desire illegitimate.


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