College Admissions: Biased Against Asian Applicants?
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AsianEnrollmentStarting in the nineteenth century, the United States began placing stricter and stricter controls preventing immigration from Asian countries.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the first law in the United States to bar members of a specific ethnic group from entering the country. The Immigration Act of 1917 closed immigration to a number of groups considered undesirable, including “homosexuals,” “criminals,” “idiots,” “epileptics” and people from South Asian countries. And the Immigration Act of 1924 set country-by-country immigration quotas, assigning zero quotas to Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

Many of these laws stayed in place for decades, but as xenophobic sentiment lessened in the middle of the century, the United States began opening its borders to immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands. The 1965 Immigration Act eliminated the 1924 Immigration Act’s zero quotas and kicked Asian immigration into high gear. Since then, Asian Americans have gone from 1% of the United States population to more than 5%.

Today, Asian Americans are one of the country’s most notable immigration success stories: Asian Americans are more educated and earn higher household incomes on average than any other race in the United States. Research suggests that this success is at least partly the result of a set of values that emphasize hard work, academic focus and parental involvement in children’s education. In other words, Asian Americans are the closest thing we have to proof that the American Dream of working hard to get ahead is possible.

“…applicants identifying as Asian need an average of 140 more SAT points than those identifying as white to have the same chances of being admitted.

When it comes to college admissions, however, more and more Asian Americans are starting to question whether the American Dream really does apply to them. Increasingly, Asian-American students and parents are coming away from the college admissions process with the realization that hard work and academic success just might not be enough. As a result, they are beginning to demand systemic changes in the way race factors into college admissions, and several Asian-American and education rights groups have filed federal lawsuits and complaints with the Department of Education alleging discriminatory admissions practices.

Although schools like Harvard that have been accused of artificially capping the number of admitted Asian students deny setting racial quotas as part of the admissions process, admissions data does suggest that Asian applicants are held to a higher standard than applicants of other races. A 2009 study by Princeton researchers Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford found that applicants identifying as Asian need an average of 140 more SAT points than those identifying as white to have the same chances of being admitted.

The differences in the way the admissions process treats Asian applicants are most evident at prestigious schools where every spot is subject to intense competition. At Harvard, which has featured front and center in several of the complaints alleging discriminatory practices, the percentage of admitted Asian-American students has remained essentially constant over the last several decades, even as the portion of college-bound Asian Americans has nearly doubled.

Advantages by Race and Class on the SAT and ACT at Selective Colleges, Fall 1997

Group Public Institutions (on ACT scale of 36) Private Institutions (on SAT scale of 1,600)
–Black +3.8 +310
–Hispanic +0.3 +130
–Asian -3.4 -140
–Lower -0.1 +130
–Working +0.0 +70
–Upper-Middle +0.3 +50
–Upper +0.4 -30

Although Asian Americans are the United States’ most educated racial group, the statistics suggest that individual Asian Americans may have to settle for attending less selective colleges than white applicants who have similar GPAs and standardized test scores. The relative difficulty Asian-American students face getting into the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions reflects the more general barriers that confront Asian Americans in the workplace: while Asian Americans have higher household incomes on average than any other racial demographic, they are still underrepresented in upper-management and executive positions relative to mid-level professional jobs.

The obstacles preventing Asian Americans from rising to the highest levels in the workplace are varied and complex. For instance, Asian Americans are sometimes stereotyped as being less willing to take risks or assume leadership – a perception clearly not based in fact considering a 2012 Kauffman Foundation study showed that over 40% of all technology startups created between 2006–2010 had Asian-American founders.

When it comes to college admissions, though, some of the barriers Asian Americans face are more concrete. In particular, the question of whether colleges should be allowed to use race as an admissions factor is at the forefront of the debate over whether the admissions process treats Asian-American applicants unfairly.

As it stands, the Supreme Court considers racial quotas and the use of race as a primary factor in admissions unconstitutional, but schools are allowed to take race into account as one consideration among many when they review applications. On a school-by-school and state-by-state basis, however, some schools outright prohibit making race a factor in admissions, which allows for comparison between schools that consider race as part of the admissions process and schools that practice affirmative action only along socioeconomic lines (by giving preference to applicants with lower socioeconomic status).

For Asian Americans, the contrast between colleges that look at race and those that don’t is stark. At top Ivy League schools including Harvard, Princeton, Yale and University of Pennsylvania, Asian Americans consistently represent 15–20% of the entering class. On the other hand, at California Institute of Technology, which has a race-neutral admissions process, Asian enrollment has kept pace with Asian immigration over the last 20 years, and over 40% of students are now Asian-American.

Caltech isn’t the only California school that has seen its number of Asian-American students grow in proportion with the United States’ Asian-American population. University of California, Berkeley regularly enrolls freshman classes that are 40% Asian, thanks in large part to a statewide ban on using race as a factor in admissions and hiring instituted in 1995. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the number of Asian applicants to UC Berkeley rose steadily as a wave of immigration brought Asian families to the Bay Area. During the same time period, however, the percentage of Asian applicants actually admitted fell, suggesting that Asians were being held to higher and higher standards.

In the late 1980s, the situation came to a head as Asian-American students and parents increasingly complained about an admissions process they saw as stacked against them. The chancellor of UC Berkeley was forced to publicly apologize and the admissions process was revised. A few years later, the statewide ban on race-based affirmative action went into effect.

The progression of events at UC Berkeley shows both that mounting public pressure can force more transparency into the college admissions process and that replacing racial preferences with socioeconomic preferences in the admissions process levels the playing field for Asian-American applicants.

Amid the national furor allegations of discriminatory admissions policies have sparked in recent years, the fact that this controversy has already been debated and dealt with at UC Berkeley several decades ago is sometimes overlooked. But if history is repeating itself, perhaps the outcome at UC Berkeley can give us an idea of where things are headed.

Although admissions officers for top Ivy League schools insist race-based admissions caps are not at play, the numbers speak for themselves. Clearly, it is unlikely to be coincidence that the number of admitted Asian applicants has remained constant as the total number of Asian applicants has increased dramatically relative to other racial groups. School officials’ denials that any type of racial quota is in place look more and more like games of semantics since the admissions process creates a de facto racial quota for Asian-American applicants, intentional or otherwise. Moreover, the suggestion that Asian Americans need higher SAT scores to get admitted than whites simply because of a “holistic” admissions process rings hollow since it seems to imply that Asian Americans as a group perform far worse on all aspects of the application process other than standardized test scores and GPA.

Looking at UC Berkeley’s history and realizing that frustrated students and parents are unlikely to take college admissions officers rationalizations at face value gives us a sense of where this story is probably leading. And the sooner it reaches its conclusion, the better – it doesn’t seem likely that future generations will look back at today’s admissions policies towards Asian-American applicants as an example of higher education at its finest.

By Niels V.