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College Confidential

Competitive disadvantage

High-achieving Asian-American students are being shut out of top schools around the country. Is this what diversity looks like now?

By Jon Marcus
April 17, 2011

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Grace Wong has felt the sting of intolerance quite literally, in the rocks thrown at her in Australia, where she pursued a PhD after leaving her native China. In the Boston area, where she’s lived since 1996, she recalls a fellow customer at the deli counter in a Chestnut Hill supermarket telling her to go back to her own country. When Wong’s younger son was born, she took a drastic measure to help protect him, at least on paper, from discrimination: She changed his last name to one that doesn’t sound Asian.

“It’s a difficult time to be Chinese,” says Wong, a scientist who develops medical therapies. “There’s a lot of jealousy out there, because the Chinese do very well. And some people see that as a threat.”

Wong had these worries in mind last month as she waited to hear whether her older son, a good student in his senior year at a top suburban high school, would be accepted to the 11 colleges he had applied to, which she had listed neatly on a color-coded spreadsheet.

The odds, strangely, were stacked against him. After all the attention given to the stereotype that Asian-American parents put enormous pressure on their children to succeed – provoked over the winter by Amy Chua’s controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – came the indisputable reality this spring that, even if Asian-American students work hard, the doors of top schools were still being slammed shut in many faces.

And parents aren’t happy about it. “The entry barriers are higher for us than for everybody else,” says Chi Chi Wu, one of the organizers of the Brookline Asian American Family Network. “There’s a form of redlining or holding Asian-American students to higher standards than any other group.”

Although Asian-Americans represent less than 5 percent of the US population (and slightly more than 5 percent in Massachusetts), they make up as much as 20 percent of students at many highly selective private research universities – the kind of schools that make it into top 50 national rankings. But, critics charge, Asian-American students would constitute an even larger share if many weren’t being filtered out during the admissions process. Since the University of California system moved to a race-blind system 14 years ago, the percentage of Asian-American students in some competitive schools there has reached 40, even 50 percent. On these campuses, the so-called “model minority” is becoming the majority.

High-achieving Asian-Americans may be running into obstacles precisely because they work so hard. Mitchell Chang, an Asian-American studies professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, suggests that the attention given Chua’s book will only make things worse. “Her characterization can further tax Asian-American college applicants by reducing the chances that they will be viewed as self-starters, risk takers, and independent thinkers – attributes that are often favored by admissions officers but rarely associated with Asian-American applicants,” Chang wrote in a January Op-Ed in The Sacramento Bee.

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Even though the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that universities can continue to consider race in admissions in the interest of diversity, admissions officers deny they’re screening out Asian-Americans. However, in researching their 2009 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and researcher Alexandria Walton Radford examined data on students applying to college in 1997 and found what looks like different standards for different racial groups. They calculated that Asian-Americans needed nearly perfect SAT scores of 1550 to have the same chance of being accepted at a top private university as whites who scored 1410 and African-Americans who got 1100. Whites were three times, Hispanics six times, and blacks more than 15 times as likely to be accepted at a US university as Asian-Americans.

What about the argument that, in relation to the general population, Asian-Americans are already overrepresented at universities? “It’s both true that Asians are overrepresented and that they’re being discriminated against,” says Stephen Hsu, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon who speaks out against discrimination he says Asian-Americans face in university admissions. Both things can happen at the same time, he says.

Hsu and others allege that universities are more concerned about boosting black and Hispanic enrollment than admitting qualified Asian-Americans, and that old-fashioned xenophobia comes into play as well.

“My personal perspective is that if institutions are using race to keep Asian-American students out, it’s based on a fear [among non-minorities] that these ‘other’ students are taking over our institutions or taking ‘our spots’ at the best institutions,” says Sam Museus, a professor in the Asian-American studies program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

At Harvard, the overall acceptance rate for the incoming class of 2015 was 6.2 percent, a record low. William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, says that among different racial groups, there are “not radical differences” in the proportions of students who got in.

“We’re looking for excellence, first and foremost. And there’s excellence in every community in America and certainly lots of excellence within each one of the minority communities,” Fitzsimmons says. “We would not be doing our jobs if we were not looking for the best applicants from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

Asian-Americans represent 17.8 percent, or 383, of the students admitted to Harvard last month, which is up from 14.1 percent a decade ago. During the last five years, however, the proportion there and at other Ivies has remained relatively flat or increased only slightly, even after an Asian-American student at Yale filed a federal complaint in 2006 against Princeton, where he applied but was not accepted, alleging it discriminated against him because of his race. Despite perfect SAT scores and nine Advanced Placement courses, the student said he was also rejected by Harvard, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT. (That complaint has not been resolved, a US Department of Education spokesman says.)

By contrast, at California’s competitive – and race-blind – state schools, Asian-Americans are much better represented: 52 percent of the student population at the University of California at Irvine, 40 percent at Berkeley, and 37 percent at UCLA. (The ban on admissions committees considering race was upheld by a federal judge in December.)

The difference suggests that, where considering race is allowed, elite universities may be handicapping Asian-American applicants. “They just all sort of magically end up with under 20 percent Asian students,” Hsu says. One Princeton lecturer has asked if that number represents the “Asian ceiling.”

This issue has gotten some recent attention in the United States, but much more across the border in Canada, where it stirred a national controversy in the fall when students in a Maclean’s article asked whether Canadian universities were becoming, as the headline put it, “Too Asian?” With spiraling Asian enrollments, the magazine reported, Canadian universities were becoming “so academically focused that some [non-Asian] students feel they can no longer compete or have fun.” Some white students told Maclean’s they wouldn’t choose the University of Toronto because it has so many Asians. “You can’t really overestimate the power of stereotypes,” Museus says. (A university spokeswoman reports it hasn’t seen a backlash.)

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In the end, Wong’s son got into most of the colleges he applied to, including Boston University, UMass-Amherst, Ithaca College, and Drexel University. But other Asian-American high school seniors in this singularly competitive corner of the country – not only the children of middle- and upper-income parents in Brookline and other expensive suburbs, but also sons and daughters of low-income families such as Southeast Asian refugees in cities including Lowell – have had a traumatic spring.

“These kids are getting pretty immense pressure from their families, because there is some truth to the idea that Asian families value education highly as a way of progress and success,” says Museus. “Then they’re getting pressure from this competitive environment that exists around Boston. On top of that, they’re getting pressure from this stereotype, which sets up the expectation that they always have to be the best. The pressure does facilitate success, up to a certain point. But it also gets to a point where it makes them feel that they can’t do anything right.”

Brookline organizer Chi Chi Wu, who is a lawyer and the mother of an 11-year-old, says it may be time to fight back, using a legal theory called disparate impact. “In other areas of civil rights law, when you have statistical disparities, you can often make a case. You don’t have to prove the university is saying, ‘We don’t want all these Asians,’ but just having those statistics and being able to point to disparities is enough.”

She adds, “If we Asian-Americans don’t organize, there’s no amount of piano practicing that will help us.”

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