Ph.D. Octopus

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Asians in Universities: A Canada-US Comparison

with 11 comments

by Weiner

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.


Written by David Weinfeld

December 4, 2010 at 18:27

11 Responses

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  1. Is there social or institutional value in the “Ivy system” which weights extracurriculars, apart from any impact such a policy has on the race/class of the student body? That’s the first question I’d ask. I don’t dispute that the Ivy system has anti-Semitic origins, but I strongly feel the Ivy system can serve a legitimate function. So I don’t agree with the MacLean’s conclusion that it’s “likely a good thing” that the Canadian system is purely meritocratic.

    I do agree it’s morally wrong to discriminate purely on the basis of race: Espenshade and MacLean’s are certain Ivies do this, but I’m not so sure. I only know a few data points, but I suspect the admissions staff & leadership in Ivy schools are far more diverse today than in 1920s anti-Semitic Harvard. That is a critical difference in making the analogy between the 1920s Jews and present-day Asian admissions experience.

    But is the “Ivy system” explicitly unfair to some recent immigrants who can’t thrive as well in extracurriculars as they can in academics? It certainly would be if you looked purely at the level of extracurricular involvement, but admissions officers do try to look at the hand your were dealt, and how you played it. When it comes to the purely meritocratic end, admissions officers surely give some advantage to disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet Ivies will still reject inner-city valedictorians with really low SATs, so life is not perfectly fair, but there’s only so much admissions can do about that. I believe the treatment of extracurriculars should be roughly similar to the treatment of academics I’ve just described, and I believe that’s what these admissions offices strive for.

    (full disclosure: I lived two years after college with an Ivy admissions officer who married another Ivy admissions officer)


    December 4, 2010 at 21:56

    • Thanks for the great comment DRDR.

      You make a lot of great points. I agree that Ivies today are far more diverse than the 1920s. So is America. And that’s a good thing. And I think you’re right that admissions officers do a good job of looking at things like family background. Overall I think they do a good job with a very difficult assignment.

      I think the big differences here might be with the size and demographics of the two countries. Canada has one tenth the population of the United States and far fewer universities. It’s universities are also bigger and poorer. They don’t have the resources to have this kind of extensive application system. So they use transcripts only, and schools favour students in province, and then out of province Canadian students, and finally internationals. There are also staggered rates of tuition based on those same geographic criteria.

      I wonder if elite American schools would be better with some kind of minimum requirements which they would then publicize. For example, if Harvard (or Princeton or whomever) said: we will not take applicants with a GPA below 3.5 and an SAT score below 1200 (I know that SAT is different now). That way, for the most part, only people who met that requirement would apply, and only people who met it would get in. But beyond that, they could use the same holistic approach they do now. Maybe schools do have these cutoffs, unofficially. But perhaps it would be better if they were official, and even better if they were public.

      I don’t really know the answers here. I’m just trying to speculate how to make a very difficult task a bit easier and possibly a bit more fair.


      December 5, 2010 at 10:23

  2. Thanks for the interesting comments Weiner. Both my Post article and Walrus piece were journalistic pieces restricted both by space and by the need to address the Maclean’s article (and so accept to some degree their framing of the terms of debates).

    I agree that the idea of meritocracy shouldn’t be uncritically accepted.

    Having said that, there are huge differences between the American and Canadian system that make any comparison problematic. There are many more schools in America and they vary in quality to a much greater extent. There’s a huge difference between Harvard and Bob Jones University. In Canada there’s not such a huge difference between the top schools like McGill and the smaller ones. You can get a good education pretty much at any university in Canada.

    For that reason, I think the top American schools have a much bigger role in elite formation than the top schools in Canada do. For some people, it’s a matter of life and death to get into Harvard. That’s not true of any school in Canada.

    There’s no counterpart in Canada to the “legacy” programs that let children of alumni get in. And athletics are a very minor thing in Canadian schools. When I was at the University of Toronto I was only vaguely aware that the school has a football team.

    So I’d say that the systems are so different it’s hard to have a point of comparison.

    Jeet Heer

    December 5, 2010 at 11:00

    • Thanks for the comments Jeet. I appreciate your post and the dialogue. I recognize you were constrained by the publications you wrote and I know that must be frustrating given the complicated nature of this problem.

      I think the points you make about the differences between Canada and the United States are all accurate and valid. As I mentioned in my comment to DRDR, I think the size and number of universities is key. Though I will say that many people Canadian students are disappointed because they aren’t able to get in to say, McGill or U of T. But you’re right to say the drop-off to less prestigious schools is much lower.

      Still, I think the comparison (or perhaps we should call it a contrast) is instructive when trying to understand how the two nations address the issue of diversity in higher education.

      I also think it’s crucial to note the entirely different contexts in which the 1920s Ivy League schools began to have antisemitic quotas versus today’s Ivy League schools with their much softer affirmative action (which I support).

      As I’m sure you well know, the 1920s USA was a much less diverse place than contemporary America. In fact, diversity was often understood in terms of white ethnic groups (Jews, Italians, Irish, etc). Ivy League schools were bastions of WASP privilege. There were far fewer Catholics there too. The quotas limited the number of Jew to maintain this elite WASP social atmosphere. African Americans still lived mostly in the South (there had only been one great migration thus far) and the Latino and Asian populations were much smaller.

      All this changed after WW2 and especially after 1965 with immigration reform. And as I said in my initial post, todays race-based admissions policies in practice disadvantage (albeit in small way) white and Asian students, and give preferences to disadvantaged minorities, understood to be Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. So in fact the modern soft quotas exist, in theory, to do the OPPOSITE of what the rigid antisemitic quotas of the 1920s did. Those were to maintain WASP privilege and limit diversity, whereas todays Ivy League admissions policies, at least one some level, are about counter-acting that privilege and increasing diversity, in the sense of admitting more Black, Latino, and Native American students, and fewer white and Asian students than might otherwise have been admitted.

      This is actually where the concept of “model minority” and the similarities between Jews and Asians become interesting. Jews, for the purpose of college admissions (and much else) are just considered “white people” today. And I think Asians may actually achieve a similar status fairly soon. Already, in my circles and in college circles, you hear people making jokes like “we were a bunch of white people, and by white people I mean whites and Asians.”

      Nicholas Lemann wrote a great article about this in Slate in 1996 which still holds up, though I think, to use his formulation, many Asian kids today, even more removed from the immigration of parents or even grandparents, are becoming “Episcopalian,” like the American Jews of yore.

      Of course, all this is very different in Canada, where extra-curricular activities are far less important (even irrelevant) to the university application process.

      And all this leads to even more questions as to how the immigrant assimilation processes are different in Canada versus the United States, a fascinating topic worth several volumes of discussion.


      December 5, 2010 at 14:43

    • While there are obviously large differences between American and Canadian demographics and university funding, I believe Canadian universities can learn plenty from American universities’ admissions experiences, because there’s a lot of variety in American admissions policies. I find it hard to believe that resource limitations limit Canadian schools to selecting only based on test scores and race (though I understand they can’t match American resources). I’m confident Canadian students would benefit from more different types of colleges to choose from.

      To illustrate, my college decision in 1999 was between Harvard and MIT. MIT clearly puts more weight on mathematical merit than Harvard in admissions, and that leads to obvious differences in campus life.

      At my MIT pre-frosh weekend, the selling points were more academic — the ease of double & triple majoring in various mathematical disciplines and undergraduate research opportunities. MIT students seemed more stressed about school and had less energy for serious extracurricular commitments (though surely there are exceptions). In their spare time, I saw MIT frat boys living in Boston doing frat boy things, and MIT guys living in dorms playing Starcraft. At Harvard, I was overwhelmed by all the extracurriculars and the devotion of students to those extracurriculars, and I thought Harvard was right for me. I never viewed the difference between the schools in racial terms — Asians from my public high school were top performers in & out of class and went to both MIT and Harvard.

      I believe the racist ditzy girls in the MacLean’s article view Toronto much like how I viewed MIT. There is legitimate difference in opinion about the value of extracurriculars vs. academics in admissions & the university mission, and it’s good for students to have choices. Unfortunately, these girls & MacLean’s act as if the share of Asians on campus is the sole determinant of this academic/extracurricular tradeoff. With this view of the world, they turned a legitimate debate about differences in school admission policies into a bigoted debate.


      December 5, 2010 at 15:27

  3. Great points all around. One other crucial difference between the higher education system in Canada and the United States involves cost and access. Canada is now the global leader in higher education with nearly 60% of the population holding an associate degree or better. This compares with only 40% in the United States.

    I’m assuming a major reason for this has to do with the much lower tuition rates in Canada. McGill, for example, costs $3500 an academic year for Quebec students and $7100 for those coming out of province (international students will have to pay much more than that). This is fairly typical across the board.


    December 6, 2010 at 21:07

  4. […] 4) Insofar as that academically-oriented form of parenting is accepted, there is no question that Asians, broadly speaking, have mastered it. As Chua appropriately admits, there are plenty of Asians and Chinese people who employ “Western” parenting techniques, and plenty of non-Chinese who use the same methods she does (though probably not to that insane extreme), but statistics show that Asian-Americans, especially those of Chinese, Korean, and east Indian origin, do better scholastically. Politically correct people who disagree are living in denial. The secret is not genetic, it’s work ethic. These kids work harder in school. Culture and history matter. When Jewish, Italian, Polish and other immigrants came to the United States 100+ years ago, they left under conditions that had some differences and similarities, but they also came with different cultures, and thus had different academic and economic outcomes in America. The same is true of the post-1960s immigrants from Asia and elsewhere, and of the second and third generations from a variety of lands. Rather than deny this, we should try to explain it. […]

  5. “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.”

    I don’t see any irony. No one is talking about blacks, latinos and native americans here. In a study by Princeton researchers in 2005, it was showed that affirmative action benefited Whites by giving them a 50 SAT points advantage over Asian-Americans. Now, are Whites a “disadvantage minority”? Why are they benefiting from a quota that is supposed to help underprivileged groups? And let’s also not forget that whites have the highest proportion of legacy students.

    A case in point would be the scrapping of affirmative action in schools in California. Right after that happened, enrolment of Asian-American students shot up while that of white students declined. This shows that AA clearly benefits whites, and not only disadvantaged minorities. And since college enrolment is a zero-sum game, there has to be a loser. Guess who?

    This situation is exactly the same as the quotas imposed on Jews: whites versus an overrepresented minority. I find your attempt to confuse the issue by including other minorities to be disingenuous.


    February 15, 2012 at 12:11

    • Thanks for the comments Lionelloon. I respectfully disagree with your analysis. My point precisely is that “no one is talking about blacks, latinos, and native americans here” because they should be. On balance, Affirmative Action programs do not help whites except vis a visa Asians. I agree with you that nobody should really spend time worrying about an Asian-white gap in test scores. I also agree with you that legacy preferences should be abolished. But I think you are unfairly ignoring other groups. When the UC system scrapped AA, whites suffered, but so did Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans.

      Crucially, I couldn’t disagree more when you say “this situation is exactly the same as the quotas imposed on Jews.” When those quotas were imposed, the number of Black and Latino applicants was tiny, and there were no female applicants at all. The whole system was different. And that’s precisely my point. AA emerged before large numbers of Asians entered college in the US, as Asian immigration skyrocketed only after changes to immigration laws in the US in 1965. The Bakke case of 1978 was about a white man in the UC system, similar cases today would undoubtedly be about Asians.

      To be clear, I support affirmative action in the US in terms of minority recruiting and considering race/ethnicity as a factor in achieving diversity in the student body. I also think that since American schools can look at applications holistically, they can to some degree determine which students suffered disadvantage at the individual level, be that from income, racism/sexism/discrimination, geographic isolation, high-crime neighborhoods, family circumstances, immigrant status, etc. etc. And this approach acknowledges that a 1200 SAT score from a poor kid is worth more than a 1300 from a rich kid. I said most of this in the post so don’t need to rehash it.

      I think the Canadian system should remain mostly as it is, but maybe try to take a more holistic approach.

      Basically, I think both system should try to find a middle ground, while still acknowledging demographic differences that should lead to somewhat different approaches.

      David Weinfeld

      February 15, 2012 at 17:13

  6. […] Affirmative Action on Campus: An Historical Canada–US Comparison.” That chapter came out of this blog post. Here’s the blurb on the […]

    Ph.D. Octopus

    May 29, 2012 at 16:55

  7. Great article post. Great.

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