College Admissions and the Asian-American Parent

The Ivies, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Berkeley. Maybe Duke, if all else fails.... That's the "List" -- the typical college list for parents of high-achieving Asian-American students. With over four thousand colleges to choose from, why do so few make the cut?
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The Ivies, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Berkeley. Maybe Duke, if all else fails... maybe.

That's the "List" -- the typical college list for parents of high-achieving Asian-American students. With over four thousand colleges to choose from, why do so few make the cut?

As one guidance counselor lamented to me, Asian-American parents just don't show up for information sessions featuring lesser known or liberal arts colleges, regardless of the quality of the school. Yet when it comes to the big name schools, you can't find a seat. He asked me for advice. While not all Asian-Americans limit their college choices to the List, for those that do (and other parents as well), here is what I have to offer.

We all fall prey to the lure of brands from time to time, and education is no exception. It seems that for many Asian-American parents, only the luxury brands of higher education will do. It would serve us well to stop and think about the purpose of brands, the calculated effort to promote group think and distort reality (as a trademark attorney by training, I have seen this up close). These two goals are out of place, but persist, in the education world.

Take the Ivy brand, for example. Originally just the convenient name for a regional athletic division, "Ivy" effectively blurs the distinctions between its eight members. The reality is that each Ivy varies greatly in course offerings, class size, access to professors, research opportunities and quality of life. Yet for many, especially Asian-American parents, the individual Ivies are interchangeable simply because they share the same brand.

A similar lack of critical analysis appears in the reliance by Asian-American parents on U.S. News & World Report rankings. If status is the goal, then U.S. News is the scorecard. One private educational consultant with an Asian-American client base admitted that U.S. News is a "Bible" for many parents. It doesn't matter that colleges have been caught fudging their numbers and the list has lost credibility. For parents that value competition, winning and being at the top, U.S. News still dominates.

This is not surprising, at least for Chinese-Americans, because nowhere is educational status more evident than in mainland China, where the Ivy-bound can rise to the level of reality stardom (the thinking man's Kardashians, perhaps). The 2000 Chinese bestseller Harvard Girl, written by parents of successful applicant Yiting Liu, sold over two million copies and created a cottage industry of books, seminars and consulting practices selling the secrets of getting in.

Status is not the whole answer, though. If you look closer, as I was prompted by an educational consultant of Asian background, you see striations within the Asian-American community. For immigrant families still waiting to realize the American dream, college is evaluated in terms of "return on investment." Students from these families are expected to bring in big returns, and attending an Ivy League school is an indispensable part of the plan. After financial security has been achieved, there may be less pressure on children to follow a preordained path. The choice of college is not bound to the family's aspirations, giving rise to a longer, more diverse college list.

In many Asian countries, where you go to college determines the course of your professional life. It makes sense that Asian-American parents would think the same holds true in the U.S., and it used to, but not anymore. Research shows that today's employers care more about what an applicant can do than the name on a diploma. When The Wall Street Journal asked recruiting executives at 500 leading companies to name the top 25 colleges that "best prepare students to land jobs that are satisfying, well-paid and have growth potential," only one Ivy made the list, Cornell, in the 14th spot. Berkeley came in at fifteen and MIT at twenty-three. Jennifer Merritt, "Penn State Tops Recruiter Rankings," The Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2010. According to The Wall Street Journal study, "recruiters made clear that they preferred big state schools over elite liberal arts schools, such as the Ivies." I bet many high-achieving Asian-American applicants would be welcomed with open arms, and scholarships, at these schools, and apparently graduate with better prospects for employment as well. Too bad they wouldn't make the List.

Another misplaced assumption is that graduating from an elite undergraduate school eases the way for admission to graduate school. It is not the case that elite undergrads are feeder schools for elite graduate schools. Depth of coursework, scores on graduate school entrance exams, internships, student research, work experience, recommendations and demonstrated interest in the subject area count much more than school status or any of the other non-academic factors that come into play in undergraduate admissions (geography, legacy, athletics). One educational consultant refers parents to Harvard Business School to prove this point -- the undergraduate schools represented are as diverse as the students themselves.

If employers and graduate schools are not placing brand name schools above the rest, we shouldn't, either. I am not saying school status doesn't matter at all -- it just doesn't matter as much as parents assume it does, and it is certainly not worth the cost.

By "cost" I am not talking about tuition, but the cost endured by students. This is very real to me. I married into an Indian-American family, which I love dearly. Our family is loud and quiet at the same time. Loud music and laughter mask the silence of a generation afraid to speak about secret failures, relationships and struggles. As confided to me, the attitude among many young Asian-Americans is: do what you have to do to get your parents off your back. Getting into an acceptable college helps -- the better the school, the bigger the accomplishment, the more leverage gained to push parents away.

This does not strike me as a sustainable relationship. I have seen young people drift away from family as the secrets take over. Rejection from a college on the List is not a failure to be hidden from parents out of shame, especially when discrimination in admissions against Asian-Americans is widely accepted as fact. I have seen that education, like marriage, is a family affair in Asian-American households. The publisher of Harvard Girl, Yang Kui, agreed, stating, "Going to Harvard means that the way they raised their child was successful." Tracy Jan, "Chinese Aim for the Ivy League," The New York Times, January 4, 2009. This raises the stakes beyond mere acceptance. However, I doubt that parents, regardless of ethnicity, who make an intelligent, independent and realistic assessment of Harvard's admission tactics would ever judge themselves (or their children) based on its results.

So what should be the new goalpost, if not acceptance into one of the schools on the List? Think about what it takes to excel in the global economy. Sure academic achievement is necessary, but to really stand out it takes creativity, confidence and critical thinking. Why are successful entrepreneurs unafraid to fail? They have the confidence to think for themselves, adapt to change and take the road untaken. Confidence does not come from a college name -- it comes from believing in your abilities despite what an anonymous admissions officer might decide.

Falling in line with group think during the admissions process sets an example that, if followed, does not prepare students to be stars on campus or in the global economy. Most Asian-American parents have instilled in their children the values of hard work and determination. Now is the time to teach the importance of critical thinking and confidence.

The first step is adding a few more schools to the List.

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