Mark J. Drozdowski
Best Colleges, July 18, 2022
“To find that one’s university had become so Hebrewized was a fearful shock.”
History, we’re often reminded, tends to repeat itself.
That’s what the Students for Fair Admissions would have you believe, at any rate. The group’s complaint against Harvard claims the university employs “racially and ethnically discriminatory policies and procedures” in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
More specifically, the complaint alleges Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions practices, much as it did with Jewish students a century ago. When Asian American communities are considered as a whole, they are the highest-achieving minority group in terms of grades and standardized test scores, yet by those measures they are vastly underrepresented at top institutions.
The case has been moving through the lower courts since 2014 and could be heard this fall by the Supreme Court (SCOTUS). At stake is the future of affirmative action at our nation’s colleges and universities.
Are Harvard and other elite universities deliberately limiting the number of Asian Americans they admit? Are their enrollments governed by quotas? If so, why are such limitations in place?
What makes today’s Asian American students similar to Jewish students of yesteryear?
Harvard’s “Jewish Problem”
A hundred years ago, getting into Harvard and other elite schools wasn’t so difficult, at least by modern standards. In the early 1920s, colleges accepted almost all applicants who passed a required entrance exam, which wasn’t particularly demanding. At the time, applicants to these institutions largely were affluent white students from prominent boarding schools.
But a curious development began to unfold. Thanks to an increase in immigration early in the century, the nation’s Jewish population ballooned, especially in the Northeast. Smart and upwardly mobile, Jewish students sought places at elite colleges. In 1900, 7% of students at Ivy League schools were Jewish. By 1922, that figure had jumped to 21.5%.