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