China Power

Intake Bias at Yale, Peking?

Recent Features

China Power

Intake Bias at Yale, Peking?

What selection for Peking and Yale universities have in common (clue: it isn’t something good)

If I remember anything about Yale, I remember that there weren’t that many students there like me.

There were plenty of Asians, a good handful of Canadians, and lots and lots of guys—always guys—who passed glibness off as intelligence. As a loud-mouthed jerk, I fit right in (even by Yale standards I was arrogant).

But students from working class families, students whose dads used their hands to make a living, were barely welcome at Yale. If not in business, Yale fathers always seemed to be in education or healthcare or law or government. Never trade union members.

Not to say that my dad's work at a Chinese restaurant embarrassed me. I was enough of a Maoist then to believe in the noble virtues of manual labor—at least for other people. Indeed, I was rather proud that my dad earned an honest living cooking meals, while some other parents no doubt earned a dishonest one cooking the books. I even carried on the family tradition by washing dishes at Yale.

Chances are if I’d been the white, all-American son of a restaurant worker from Toledo, I never would have gotten into Yale. But my struggling immigrant background, my Canadian high school experience, and my unpronounceable name must have added just enough spice to getme in. Either that, or some absent-minded admissions clerk tossed my folder into the wrong pile. (It does happen.)

My impression that Yale and other ranking schools discriminate against working class applicants was backed by a study discussed in a recent New York Times commentary.

The study is similar to research done by Jerome Karabel and published as The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which showed how biases have always affected admissions policies at these schools. These biases have shifted over time, but the over-riding bias has always been to favor ‘people like us.’ In her book A is for Admission: The Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges, Michele Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer, admits that she and her colleagues favoured students who campaign for gay rights over those who campaign for gun rights. Karabel explains that America’s elite institutions can get away with such overt discrimination because their admissions process is subjective and secretive.

This is why Chinese are proud of their national examination system. The system may be cruel, brutal, and oppressive, but it’s also fair, transparent, and meritocratic.

But walk through Peking University and try to find a peasant child who studied his way into the Chinese establishment. You’d have better luck trying to interest Harvard in becoming a boxcar racing sponsor.  

Ostensibly there’s great diversity among Chinese university students, but it’s a superficial diversity. If a Peking University student calls himself ‘provincial’ it means his father runs a province, and if he’s from a peasant background it means his grandfather was on the Long March with Mao.

Ditto for Harvard and Yale. They have enough black students who went to Exeter and who live on the Upper East Side to make their praise and defense of their affirmative action policies seem lame at best and repugnant at worst.

And even though the admissions process is supposedly qualitative it’s being made more quantitative by the overwhelming popularity of the US News & World Report university rankings. A student’s SAT and AP scores matter more than ever before, and that’s why Chinese refer to that system of tests as America’s national examination.

As the Chinese system shows, a so-called ‘fair, transparent, and meritocratic’ series of tests invariably favors those with a prodigious memory and an empty imagination—in other words, the children of technocrats and professionals who will become technocrats and professionals themselves. In his profile of Princeton students, David Brooks argues that the Ivy League churns out plenty of industrious and ambitious students with little imagination and moral character (this also matches my impression of my Yale classmates). The same could be said of Peking University students.  

Peking University is called China’s Harvard not because anyone believes the two schools are academically comparable (or at least I hope not), but because they are both gate-keepers into the ruling elite. A long time ago, Harvard and Peking felt that sort of position empowered them to change their societies. But nowadays it seems like they’re more interested in maintaining their position, and thus they must 'rig' their admissions to cater to their respective ruling elites.

David Brooks may say that today’s very best American students have brains but no soul. The same can be said of the best universities in the US and China as well.