What's Behind Asian Discrimination in College Admissions?

If colleges are to be meritocracies, then they need to completely overhaul their admission procedures. They must consider how lurking biases may impact decision-making.
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A recent lawsuit by Students for Fair Admissions argues that Asian American students are discriminated against in college admissions at Harvard.

It's unlikely that the Ivy League is overtly racist. Admissions officers don't read an application and say, "well, he's Asian, I think I'll pass." Rather, discrimination against Asian Americans is indirect, propagated by a number of unfair heuristics that favor wealthy white students.

This first is legacy admissions. 10-15% of Ivy League students have a parent or grandparent who attended their university. The second is a preference given to "feeder schools." Since feeder schools - including a slew of New York City private schools - tend to be predominantly white and wealthy, this creates a structural advantage for the students who can afford to attend. Finally, the wealthy can afford to hire advisors to help their children with essays and pay for resume-builders (like charity trips to Africa or South America), whereas lower-income families cannot afford to do so.

All three of these qualities do not uniquely disadvantage Asians - they simply help ensure a white majority at Ivy League schools. Recognizing that their traditional admission standards are unfair, Ivy League schools import diversity via affirmative action. They bring in black and Latino students to ensure that these minorities are represented. Because Asian Americans are a "model minority" and tend to outperform other racial groups academically, they are deemed unworthy of affirmative action.

The result of this process is exactly what Ivy League schools are looking for - a student body with a white majority that is flanked by students from a variety of racial backgrounds. If the floodgates were opened, the Ivy League might no longer be majority white. The University of California - Berkley, which is ranked by U.S. News as one of the top 20 colleges and has race blind admissions - is 47% Asian.

Ivy League schools are by their very definition, are conservative organizations. Just as they hoped to prevent Jews from forming a critical mass on college campuses in the 20th century, Ivy League schools now hope to prevent Asians from achieving organic growth. Harvard hopes to keep its Asian population below 17%, forcing Asian Americans to complete amongst themselves for the coveted spots. This only drives up standards to the point where white students no longer need to be of the same caliber as their Asian peers to gain admission to elite universities.

This is reflected by the research that has been conducted on the topic. Thomas J. Espenshade, a Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, found that on average, Asian students accepted to top universities scored 140 points higher on their SATs than did their white peers and 450 points higher than African American students.

We decided to take a deeper look at our own high school experiences - as non-Asian students in a predominantly Asian American high school - to look for parallels with nation-wide statistics. What we found is telling.

During our senior year, we requested and were granted access to college admission data for our alma mater. We used the class of 2007 - with its more than 800 graduates - as a case study. For each student, we found the rank of the top school to which they were admitted on the Forbes' America's Top Colleges. Then we conducted a multivariate regression analysis holding GPA, SAT score, income (mealcode), and AP Classes taken constant. We found that being Asian reduced the Forbes ranking of the top school to which the student was admitted by 8.4 ranks.

If colleges are to be meritocracies, then they need to completely overhaul their admission procedures. They must consider how lurking biases may impact decision-making. Instead of responding defensively to concerning data about the racial impact of their admissions policies, they should look internally to identify its cause. Leveling the playing field should be the goal - not pretending there is no problem.

In college, we learn to check our assumptions at the door and engage in a meaningful pursuit of knowledge. Our universities need to take their own advice.

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