Do Asian-Americans Face Bias in Admissions at Elite Colleges?


AA1.jpgNew York Times – The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is examining complaints that Harvard and Princeton have discriminated against Asian-American undergraduate applicants, highlighting a concern of many Asian-American parents.

The inquiry was first reported by Bloomberg News.

The Office for Civil Rights confirmed that the investigation stemmed from individual complaints reported against both schools in August 2011, but declined to provide further details.

Some studies suggest that Asian-American students need higher standardized test scores than white students to be admitted to some colleges.

Harvard rejected the charges of bias.

“Harvard College does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants,” Jeff Neal, a senior communications officer for Harvard, wrote in an e-mail. “Our review of every applicant’s file is highly individualized and holistic, as we give serious consideration to all of the information we receive and all of the ways in which the candidate might contribute to our vibrant educational environment and community.”

He cited the fact that Harvard admitted only 6.3 percent of applicants for the class of 2015 as a possible reason why the student was rejected. ”There are inevitably many strong candidates who will be disappointed,” he said.

“We make admissions decisions on a case-by-case basis in our efforts to build a well-rounded, diverse class” a spokesperson for Princeton wrote in an e-mail. “Princeton University treats each application individually and we don’t discriminate on the basis of race or national origin.”

Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that her organization would not get involved until more data was released.

“We would have to look at any case that came to us to make sure that there is a case of discrimination, and I think that disparities in admissions rates and scores could be a piece of evidence,” Ms. Aung said. “But I think that if Asians were categorically being required to score higher than whites in order to gain admissions, that certainly would be something that would require a deeper look as possible evidence of discrimination.”

Thomas J. Espenshade, a sociologist at Princeton and the author of “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life,” showed in his research that Asian-Americans needed SAT scores that were about 140 points higher than white students, all other quantifiable variables being equal, to get into elite schools.

He studied comprehensive data from 30 different colleges starting in 1997, “and we found that, holding a lot of other things constant, there was a good deal of influence based on race or ethnicity,” Mr. Espenshade said.

Another study by the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit group opposed to racial preferences in college admissions, found that Asian-Americans at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had median math and reading SAT scores of 1370 out of 1600, compared with 1340 for white students, 1250 for students of Hispanic descent and 1190 for black students.

Mr. Espenshade cautioned against jumping to conclusions. “The empirical work that we’ve done suggests that Asian-American applicants might be at some competitive disadvantage,” he said.

“Some people say ‘Isn’t that prima facie evidence of discrimination?’ ” He continued, “and I say no, not necessarily. Mainly because we are looking at a portion of information that admissions deans have access to.”

College counselors said they had seen little evidence of pervasive discrimination, but pointed to many factors that could account for the perception of it.

Howard Greene, a school adviser who wrote several “Greene’s Guides” with his son Matthew, called reports of a systemic bias against Asian-American students “a myth.”

He said a glut of academically focused Asian-American candidates applying to top universities made admissions increasingly competitive for them.

“Asian-Americans as a category have the highest rate of high school graduation of any identified group,” Mr. Greene said. “Also, as a cohort, Asian-Americans have the highest SAT and ACT scores.” What may seem to be racial bias “is actually caused by too many people applying to college.”

Jon Reider, the director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, said that about 20 percent of his school’s student body were Asian-Americans.

“I have not seen any pattern at selective colleges in this regard,” he said. “So to me, I’m an agnostic, it’s an open question, I’d want to see the proof.”

Mr. Reider said the competitive nature of admissions was of concern to many students, regardless of their background.

“It’s happening to everybody, so people want to say there’s a reason,” Mr. Reider said. “We like to put blame on things.”

Mr. Greene said he thought a traditional emphasis on “Asian-American families directing their children to math, science, engineering and maybe business” could work against their admissions chances because “there’s not a broad representation of students applying for humanities, English, the arts.”

Recently, a young Asian-American woman that Mr. Greene was counseling asked him to tell her parents, one a doctor and the other a research scientist, that she would “not be a failure in life” because she wanted to major in English in college.

Mr. Reider said the intangible elements of the admissions process made it very difficult for an investigation to prove that an admissions office had acted out of a racial bias.

“You have to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples,” he said. He explained that admissions offices will commonly assign numbers to rate an applicant’s different “hooks” (e.g., their academic success, potential for leadership, etc.).

“What you have to do to find discrimination is to find kids who have relatively the same numbers assigned to them for academic and nonacademic things,” he said, and then determine if there is a pattern of rejection based on race.

by Daniel E. Slotnik

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