Discrimination Against Asians in College Admissions?

Dawn Davenport


Are US colleges discriminating against Asian students? What should we tell our kids to do?

Are US colleges discriminating against Asian students? What should we tell our kids to do?

What should we tell our kids to do? The U.S. Department of Education is investigating charges that Harvard and Princeton discriminate against Asian-Americans by requiring that their high school grades and SAT scores be higher than those of other races in order to be admitted.  The Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating complaints that Harvard and Princeton apply a different admission standard for Asian applicant, which in essence, establishes a quota cap for Asian students.  Both Harvard and Princeton deny any racial stereotyping.

According to the 2010 U.S. census, there are 14.7 million Americans of Asian descent, plus 2.6 million who are multiracial including Asian. The combined 17.3 million makes up 5.6 percent of the US population.  Asian-Americans are over-represented at top universities relative to their percent of the population.  Asian-Americans comprised 16 percent of Harvard undergraduates in the 2010-2011 academic year, 17.7% Princeton undergraduates, and 15% of Yale undergraduates.

Asian-Americans need to score 140 points more than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points above African-Americans out of a maximum 1600 on the math and reading SAT to have the same chance of admission to a private college, according to “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal,” a 2009 book co-written by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade.  For example:

  • Asian-Americans admitted to the University of Wisconsin- Madison in 2008 had a median math and reading SAT score of 1370 out of 1600, compared to 1340 for whites, 1250 for Hispanics, and 1190 for blacks.
  • Asian-American students who enrolled at Duke University in 2001 and 2002 scored 1457 out of 1600 on the math and reading portion of the SAT, compared to 1416 for whites, 1347 for Hispanics and 1275 for blacks.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has faced this issue in 1990 when they first examined Harvard’s handling of Asian-American applicants. It turned up stereotyping by Harvard evaluators, such as this comment about one Asian-American candidate: “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor.”  It also documented that Harvard admitted Asian-Americans at a lower rate than white applicants even though the Asian- Americans had slightly stronger SAT scores and grades. The agency concluded, nevertheless, that Harvard didn’t violate civil rights laws because preferences for alumni children and specifically recruited athletes, rather than racial discrimination, accounted for the discrepancies.

Perhaps more worrying is the perception reported by some Asian students of subtle stereotyping/prejudice against Asians by other students.  For example.

  • “The Asians have taken over”
  • “That’s the Asian part of campus” (in reference to the engineering quad)
  • “Why do they let so many of them in?”

I’ll have to admit that I’m not unbiased—I have an Asian daughter who will be applying for college next year.  And yes, she is smart (also athletic, kind, stubborn, and a tom-boy with a flair for fashion).  I don’t want her to be at a disadvantage in getting into the college of her choice.  Plenty of Asian parents are encouraging their children to leave the race box unchecked, and for now, that what I’ll encourage my daughter to do.  Her last name is not Asian, but I’m not sure how to handle any required pictures.  I also worry about the not-so-subtle message this advice is sending to her about how she should feel about being Asian American.

Here’s the irony—get ready to throw stones.  In general, I’m in favor of conservatively applied affirmative action college admissions policies.  I see the advantages of racial diversity for the entire student body, and to applicants whose race has historically worked against them.  Right now, I’m trying to work through whether I’m a complete hypocrite or only a partial one.


Image credit: waters2712

15/05/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 17 Comments

17 Responses to Discrimination Against Asians in College Admissions?

  1. Avatar Audrey says:

    No, Ivies like Harvard only offer need based scholarships, no merit based scholarships at all.

  2. Avatar Audrey says:

    The fact is there are many outstanding Asian kids who not only have stellar grades and test scoree, but also have excellent extracuriculum activities. Those kids achieve better grades/test scores not just because they are smart, but because they simply worked harder than other kids. My son hasnt watched TV for years – he poured all his hours into study, pursue his music passion, and play basketball. To imply Asian kids are only good at school work is totally ignorant. Like Dawn said those schools are lucky to have my kids – because they are smart, have incridble work ethics, kind, passionate on their extracurriculum, have leadership. I am certain they dont have to have an Ivy degree to be good citizens and successful (I didnt say they will be rich). US can use more of those kids to make this country competative again – even Ivies dont want them!

  3. Avatar Tammy says:


    I was thinking along those same lines as I thought about this post last night. We can argue semantics all we want but the important thing is to get the education. Once our kids are in the real world, employers aren’t going to care how our kids got into college, only that they got there and completed it with competence.

    Still, for those of us who adopt children of different ethnicities, it is yet another reminded that while we try to point our the similarities, society still wants to point out the differences.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      [it is yet another reminded that while we try to point our the similarities, society still wants to point out the differences.]
      Tammy, so true. And this is a reminder that ALL of us in the majority need to remember each and every day.

  4. Avatar Tammy says:

    BTW – in the above post, AA means African American.

  5. Avatar Tammy says:

    As parent with a biracial but primarily AA son, I look at those numbers and see something entirely different. The fact that the AA scores are so much lower really makes one feel like a charity case.

    I am in the process of adopting my second child from China, so I very well may be on both ends of the spectrum on this one when it’s time to look at colleges. So what exactly do I tell my children then? That my Asian American child should not check the race box but my African American child should?

    Instead of us trying to figure out if we will check the race box, perhaps it would be a better idea if we simply took race out of the equation at all and stopped asking the question altogether.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Tammy, as a mom, I would struggle with the same issue, but unless I was sure my son would get into the school of his choice, I would encourage him to check the box. As I said in my blog, I see advantages to having a diverse student body and racial diversity is one form of diversity. I also think it is advantageous to have a mix of geographic locations, especially for the smaller more elite north eastern schools. I would hope that my kids who are going to public small town mountain schools would be a sought after student IF they were otherwise qualified.

      I realize that I’m working out how I feel on this issue through these comments, so let me say thank you.

  6. Avatar Brie says:

    I’m glad you brought up the affirmative action piece. I think it is good for folks to assess their own hypocracy when they see the tables possibly being turned. I was schooled in this topic most by my 3 years’ college roommate who could have benefitted from the affirmative action policies but chose to never reveal her racial identity. She wanted to know beyond a doubt that she earned her way there.

    I attended UCLA where you can bet the majority is now Asian. When I was there the majority numbers were just on the cusp of going white to Asian. It was an interesting process to watch – not just who “took over” campus but how everyone moved within the system and how people reacted to it.

    Discrimination in a situation like this is SO hard to peg. I feel for the kids and/or families who have their heart set on one school in particular only to feel (maybe justifiably so) that they were rejected unfairly. It causes me also to lean much more, not just for college, but in everything where a box must be checked for my biracial daughter to leave it blank or mark “other.” And to help her foster lots of dreams, so if one gets defered or even crushed, she has others to pursue (maybe while she fights for the first as well!). Haha, because she is biracial, even photos could work to her advantage as folks look at her and ask the age old “What is she?!” question and marvel at her beauty (Of course that also is a sterotype – that biracial kids are beautiful. If she were biracial or not, there is no way we could argue against our daughter’s beauty, of course!).

    Thanks again for the great food for thought, Dawn!

  7. Avatar Anon says:

    Oh, how I loathe “the box.” I think race is a transient and imperfect measure of something that’s trying to account for equality; if you’re looking to distribute resources “fairly,” why not use something that’s more accurate and less divisive, like income or family history (whether or not your parents went to college, for example). I’ll leave it up to my Asian daughter as to whether she checks the box or not, but in the end it isn’t about pride or identity, it is data wielded for political purposes. If it were up to me I’d leave it blank.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Anon, our kids turn to us for advice and I feel the need to be educated as best I can in order to share what I’ve learned with her. In the end, of course, she’ll have to decide. I’m recommending leaving it blank.

  8. Avatar Ray says:

    This is a very interesting question. The only aspect of college my wife and I have entertained is that we will be encouraging our children to only go to colleges they can pay for without debt. So, unless they work hard during high school I doubt schools like Harvard will be in the running.

    Having said that, I’m also going to be trying to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit that I’m just now getting. With both my children already being tested high on the scale that indicates engineering will be an avenue for them, I’m hoping they follow in my footsteps with software development and create the next Facebook…haha. Then who needs college 😉

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Ray, actually many of the Ivy League schools have large endowments and thus offer wonderful scholarships, so Harvard might still be in the running.

  9. Avatar Julie says:

    That’s a tough one, but if the investigation actually finds bias, I think I’d suggest that she leave it blank.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Julie, that is the question I’m wrestling with. We have worked hard at making sure she is one proud Asian American. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive to encourage her to not proudly check “Asian”. On the other hand, I don’t want the standards to be stricter for her.

  10. Avatar Julie says:

    I hope that the U.S. Department of Education investigation will consider all of the factors that go into admissions decisions, not simply SAT scores. The most selective schools don’t rely on SAT scores alone and correlating SAT scores with race seems too simplistic a method of showing racial bias. Extra-curricular activities, essays, grades and teacher recommendations are also an important part of the package each applicant presents.

    It would be really interesting to learn what other attributes students of various races are bringing to the table. I have no idea how common the “Tiger Mother” method of parenting is, but I was struck by what a limited range of accomplishments that book promoted. Ivy League schools need all sorts of students–football players, actors, class leaders, French Lit majors–as well as piano-playing pre-med students. I’m encouraging my Asian daughter to follow her passions and I feel confident that there are many fine schools that will be a good fit for her (and, may I say, would be lucky to have her).

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