The Historical Parallel Between Asian American and Jewish Students

The Harvard admissions case before the Supreme Court involving Asian American students draws a historical parallel to the treatment of Jewish students 100 years ago.
7 min read

Share this Article

  • A lawsuit against Harvard claims the university discriminates against Asian Americans.
  • The case draws a historical parallel to discrimination against Jewish students 100 years ago.
  • Questions surrounding merit and character are relevant to both groups.
  • The Supreme Court could decide the fate of affirmative action this fall.

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%.

Two years later, Harvard's Jewish population was 25%.

Lawrence Lowell, Harvard's president, suddenly had a "Jewish problem." He feared the presence of too many Jewish students would cause wealthy Protestant families to choose other colleges over Harvard.

A new Harvard committee began classifying students into categories — J1, J2, and J3 — based on the likelihood a student was Jewish, with J1 being conclusive.

Quotation mark

He wasn't alone. Following a Harvard-Yale game, an alumnus wrote Lowell to complain. "To find that one's university had become so Hebrewized," he wrote, "was a fearful shock." Another graduate asked, "Are the Overseers so lacking in genius that they can't devise a way to bring Harvard back to the position it always held as a 'white man's' college?"

Lowell did, in fact, devise such a way. He sought to cap Jewish enrollment at 15%. Beginning in 1922, applicants had to answer questions about "race and color" and "religious preference." A new Harvard committee began classifying students into categories — J1, J2, and J3 — based on the likelihood a student was Jewish, with J1 being conclusive.

When Lowell's strict quota plan met faculty opposition, he instead pursued an admissions process that abandoned selection based on pure merit in favor of one based on "character." The chair of Harvard's admissions committee committee agreed that "such a discrimination would inevitably eliminate most of the Jewish element which is making trouble."

Applicants were then interviewed and judged based on character and fitness. Harvard also required photographs as part of the application packet. And the university instituted legacy preferences to provide advantages to children of alumni.

It worked. The percentage of Jewish students entering Harvard dropped from 27% in 1925 to 15% the following year and remained unchanged for two decades.

Antisemitism Pervaded the Ivy League

Harvard wasn't alone in this quest. Its Ivy brethren also sought to limit the presence of Jewish students on campus.

Dartmouth College attacked the problem head-on by establishing Jewish quotas in the early 1930s. Columbia sought to repel what its leaders called the "Jewish invasion," when its Jewish population had grown to 40% of its student body by the early 1920s. Yale instituted an explicit quota of 10% to stem the "infiltration." And Princeton cut its Jewish enrollment in half during the mid-1920s.

In "The American College and the Culture of Aspiration, 1915-1940," David O. Levine delves into the emergence of antisemitism following World War I. "Limiting the number of Jewish students," he writes, "became an obsession with officials at elite colleges in the 1920s."

"Limiting the number of Jewish students," [Levine] writes, "became an obsession with officials at elite colleges in the 1920s."

Quotation mark

Racial and ethnic bias "flourished in the American college" of that era, he notes. Colleges chose to reject academically qualified but socially undesirable students to placate alumni and upper-middle-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). The selective institution, Levine writes, was "rooted in class and ethnic prejudice, not talent."

At issue was cultural hegemony. In "The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admissions and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton," Jerome Karabel explains, "For old-stock Protestants, the rising position of Jews in the economy, the professions, and higher education constituted a challenge, not only to their economic interests, but also to their cultural dominance."

Although Jewish students accounted for only 1.19% of college students nationwide in the mid-1920s, Levine writes, their concentrated presence at the nation's most prestigious schools "heightened anxiety about their potential influence in society."

Questions of Character and Merit

Harvard's efforts to limit Jewish enrollment became known as the "Harvard Plan." It signaled a shift from a meritocratic admissions system to a more holistic assessment in which "character" became a code word for identifying Jewish applicants. Character, the Students for Fair Admissions claim contends, was a "quality thought to be frequently lacking among Jewish applicants, but present congenitally among affluent Protestants."

Jewish students, writes Levine, were considered conscientious about their studies but ill-equipped at mixing socially. According to him, they had no leadership skills, athletic prowess, and alumni parentage. And they were "lacking the physical strength," Karabel chronicles, "and straightforwardness of the 'manly' American."

Today's Asian Americans face similar biases, the lawsuit claims. "Harvard evaluators consistently rank Asian American candidates below white candidates in 'personal qualities,'" it says. "In comments written in applicants' files, Harvard admissions staff repeatedly have described Asian Americans as 'being quiet/shy, science/math oriented, and hard workers.'"

This stereotype of Asian Americans as one-dimensional or somehow lacking personal skills recalls the Harvard Plan's underpinnings, minus the antisemitism that set the plan in motion.

As Daniel Golden details in "The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates," "The nonacademic admissions criteria established to exclude [Jewish students], from alumni child status to leadership qualities, are now used to deny Asians."

Yet there's no denying that highly qualified Asian Americans face steeper challenges in competitive admissions. In "No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life," Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford calculate that for Asians to gain admission, they need SAT scores 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points higher than Blacks. Among candidates with SAT scores in the 1,400-1,600 range, 77% of Blacks, 48% of Hispanics, 40% of whites, and 30% of Asians are admitted.

“Harvard evaluators consistently rank Asian American candidates below white candidates in 'personal qualities'.”

Quotation mark

Curiously, Asian American enrollment at Harvard and other Ivy League schools has mirrored the trajectory of Jewish students a century ago. Ron Unz's essay "The Myth of American Meritocracy" reveals a "highly intriguing pattern." Asian enrollment at Harvard increased from 4% to 10% during the 1980s. After the Department of Education's 1988 investigation into a complaint that Harvard was discriminating against Asians, enrollment rose to 20.6% by 1993.

Once the matter was closed, "Asian numbers went into reverse, generally stagnating or declining during the two decades which followed," writes Unz. Asian American representation held steady at roughly 16.5% at Harvard and other Ivy League schools, even while the Asian college-age cohort quadrupled.

"This exactly replicates the historical pattern . . . in which Jewish enrollment rose very rapidly, leading to the imposition of an informal quota system, after which the number of [Jewish students] fell substantially, and thereafter remained roughly constant for decades," Utz says.

Today, the Harvard lawsuit contends, the university employs "holistic" admissions to "disguise the fact that it holds Asian-Americans to a far higher standard than other students and essentially forces them to compete against each other for admission" instead of against the applicant pool as a whole.

A Counterpoint to the Narrative

As neat as this historical parallel between Jewish and Asian students appears, it's not without holes. The class entering Harvard in 2022 was almost 23% Asian, up from 16.4% in 2000. At Yale in 2021, it was 28%.

A somewhat surprising critic of the lawsuit's claims is Karabel himself, whose exhaustive study laid much of the groundwork for the comparison.

"The analogy between [Jewish students] and Asians that frames the current case against Harvard obscures more than it illuminates," he writes. "Unlike quotas, which substantially reduced Jewish enrollments, affirmative action has proved compatible with both an increase in Asian-American enrollments and expanded opportunities for African-Americans and Latinos."

For its part, Students for Fair Admissions claims the pursuit of a "critical mass" of underrepresented minorities is "nothing more than racial balancing in that it necessarily seeks to ensure a proportional number of students of certain races or ethnicities in the entering class." SCOTUS might decide this fall what the future holds for affirmative action and the consideration of race in college admissions.

In 2003, Justice O'Connor wrote, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity]." We're a few years shy of that deadline, but given the conservative majority of the court, affirmative action's days could be numbered.

Reviewed by:

Portrait of Angelique Geehan

Angelique Geehan

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have to themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender-binary, nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange, a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup, the Health and Healing Justice Committee of the National Queer and Trans Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, QTPOC+ Family Circle, and Batalá Houston.

Prefered Pronouns: Any

Feature Image: Boston Globe / Contributor / Getty Images