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Do colleges redline Asian-Americans?

Posted by David Beard, Globe Staff  March 18, 2010 05:46 PM

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(Originally published in The Boston Globe on Feb. 9, 2010)

SAT scores aren’t everything. But they can tell some fascinating stories.

Take 1,623, for instance. That’s the average score of Asian-Americans, a group that Daniel Golden - editor at large of Bloomberg News and author of “The Price of Admission’’ - has labeled “The New Jews.’’ After all, much like Jews a century ago, Asian-Americans tend to earn good grades and high scores. And now they too face serious discrimination in the college admissions process.

Notably, 1,623 - out of a possible 2,400 - not only separates Asians from other minorities (Hispanics and blacks average 1,364 and 1,276 on the SAT, respectively). The score also puts them ahead of Caucasians, who average 1,581. And the consequences of this are stark.

Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade, who reviewed data from 10 elite colleges, writes in “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal’’ that Asian applicants typically need an extra 140 points to compete with white students. In fact, according to Princeton lecturer Russell Nieli, there may be an “Asian ceiling’’ at Princeton, a number above which the admissions office refuses to venture.

Emily Aronson, a Princeton spokeswoman, insists “the university does not admit students in categories. In the admission process, no particular factor is assigned a fixed weight and there is no formula for weighing the various aspects of the application.’’

A few years ago, however, when I worked as a reader for Yale’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, it became immediately clear to me that Asians - who constitute 5 percent of the US population - faced an uphill slog. They tended to get excellent scores, take advantage of AP offerings, and shine in extracurricular activities. Frequently, they also had hard-knock stories: families that had immigrated to America under difficult circumstances, parents working as kitchen assistants and store clerks, and households in which no English was spoken.

But would Yale be willing to make 50 percent of its freshman class Asian? Probably not.

Indeed, as Princeton’s Nieli suggests, most elite universities appear determined to keep their Asian-American totals in a narrow range. Yale’s class of 2013 is 15.5 percent Asian-American, compared with 16.1 percent at Dartmouth, 19.1 percent at Harvard, and 17.6 percent at Princeton.

“There are a lot of poor Asians, immigrant kids,’’ says University of Oregon physics professor Stephen Hsu, who has written about the admissions process. “But generally that story doesn’t do as much as it would for a non-Asian student. Statistically, it’s true that Asians generally have to get higher scores than others to get in.’’

In a country built on individual liberty and promise, that feels deeply unfair. If a teenager spends much time studying, excels at an instrument or sport, and garners wonderful teacher recommendations, should he be punished for being part of a high-achieving group? Are his accomplishments diminished by the fact that people he has never met - but who look somewhat like him - also work hard?

“When you look at the private Ivy Leagues, some of them are looking at Asian-American applicants with a different eye than they are white applicants,’’ says Oiyan Poon, the 2007 president of the University of California Students Association. “I do strongly believe in diversity, but I don’t agree with increasing white numbers over historically oppressed populations like Asian-Americans, a group that has been denied civil rights and property rights.’’ But Poon, now a research associate at the University of Massachusetts Boston, warns that there are downsides to having huge numbers of Asian-Americans on a campus.

In California, where passage of a 1996 referendum banned government institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, Asians make up about 40 percent of public university students, though they account for only 13 percent of residents. “Some Asian-American students feel that they lost something by going to school at a place where almost half of their classmates look like themselves - a campus like UCLA. The students said they didn’t feel as well prepared in intercultural skills for the real world.’’

But what do you do if you’re an elite college facing tremendous numbers of qualified Asian applicants? At the 2006 meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a panel entitled “Too Asian?’’ looked at the growing tendency of teachers, college counselors, and admissions officers to see Asians as a unit, rather than as individuals.

Hsu argues it’s time to tackle this issue, rather than defer it, as Asians’ superior performance will likely persist. “This doesn’t seem to be changing. You can see the same thing with Jews. They’ve outperformed other ethnic groups for the past 100 years.’’

Which leaves us with two vexing questions: Are we willing to trade personal empowerment for a more palatable group dynamic? And when - if ever - should we give credit where credit is due?

Kara Miller teaches at Babson College.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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