May 28, 2015
Two weeks ago, more than 60 Asian American organizations filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education, a complaint that alleges that Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants in their holistic admissions process. This complaint is not the first time that allegations of Asian American discrimination have been raised against a highly selective American university nor will it be the last. And that’s because there is indeed truth to the complaint. Highly selective American universities do discriminate against Asian American applicants. These applicants do have tougher odds of admission than do their non-Asian American peers. It’s not only at Harvard. Harvard just happened to get singled out. This practice of discrimination against an entire group of people occurs at every Ivy League college as well as at every highly selective university across the land annually.
Allow me to discredit the argument that Asian Americans don’t face discrimination in the highly selective college admissions process in one fell swoop. With not opinion but rather with data. A 2004 study by Thomas Espenshade, Chang Y. Chung, and Joan L. Walling, current and former members of the sociology department at Princeton University, one of these very highly selective universities, states, “The bonus for African-American applicants is roughly equivalent to an extra 230 SAT points (on a 1600-point scale), to 185 points for Hispanics, 200 points for athletes, and 160 points for children of alumni. The Asian disadvantage is comparable to a loss of 50 SAT points.”
There is no coming back from this finding. There is no rebuttal. The data indicates that Asian Americans are discriminated against in the highly selective college admissions process. But 50 points is a gross understatement. Asian Americans (and Asians) need close to near-perfect SAT scores to be admitted to a highly selective college. That’s right. Close to near-perfect. And why? Because these colleges already have an applicant pool of Asian American and Asian applicants who do have perfect or near-perfect scores. By selecting these applicants, Ivy League and other highly selective colleges have the opportunity to boost their mean SAT scores and, ultimately, their all-important US News & World Report college ranking.
My years of experience working with Asian American and Asian applicants to highly selective colleges confirms the findings of the Princeton study. And then some. In this particular case, Mark Twain got it wrong with his famous saying, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” These statistics convey a most regrettable truth. It’s a truth that is denied by many of my colleagues in the college admissions community. But it’s a truth nonetheless. It is not my belief that admissions officers at highly selective colleges, like the Ivy League colleges, are intentionally discriminating against Asian Americans. It is my belief that many truly believe they are not in any way discriminating against Asian American applicants. And that’s because, in most cases, these admissions officers don’t even realize they’re doing it.
The tenets of social psychology apply to admissions officers at highly selective colleges just as they apply to everyone else. Admissions officers are descendants of hunter-gatherers, too. And hunter-gatherers had to make very fast decisions in order to avoid being attacked by predators. As such, when they heard loud footsteps charging towards them, they likely ran…and fast. Maybe it was just a playful child running towards them. Or maybe it really was a predator. The point is that they stereotyped. We all do. Stereotypes, while often unfortunate, are hardwired into our brains. They’re heuristics. Shortcuts.
And when admissions officers at highly selective colleges read Asian names at the top of the Common Application, the application is evaluated through this specific lens. Don’t think so? Reread Freakonomics and you’ll find a very similar argument. Indeed, through the psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias, activities such as violin (as the ABC series Fresh Off the Boat accurately portrays) serve to reinforce the very stereotypes Asian American applicants should be avoiding. While controversial, at Ivy Coach, we’ve been helping Asian American (and Asian) applicants distinguish themselves from other Asian and Asian American applicants for many years. And violin-playing is not an important component of our students’ applications to these institutions.
Highly selective college and Ivy League admissions is all about standing out for the right reasons. Doing the same thing that every other Asian American applicant is doing isn’t going to accomplish this…as much fun as origami can be. Yes, we stereotyped. We all do. Presenting one’s case for admission the same way that so many other applicants have also presented their respective cases is regrettably going to lead admissions officers to stereotype the application and that stereotype can, as the Princeton study points out, cost an Asian American applicant big time.
I’m not certain what will come of this latest complaint alleging discrimination against Asian Americans in the admissions process. I do know that many Asian American organizations — particularly those that consist more of second, third, and fourth generation Asian Americans more so than immigrants and first generation Asian Americans, were not onboard with this complaint. And it was surely ill-advised of these newer organizations to try to draw a parallel between discrimination against Asian Americans now and Jewish Americans during the mid-twentieth century. There were Jewish quotas in admissions back then at institutions such as Harvard (there are absolutely no quotas for Asian American applicants now). There was a Holocaust happening across Europe. The parallel these organizations tried to draw weakened their argument.
Perhaps members of the more established Asian American organizations that did not sign this complaint are students of the black, women’s, and gay rights movements here in the United States, when inciting incidences like Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall served as tipping points for genuine progress. The most potent historical tipping points aren’t typically legal complaints. Rather, it’s when people come together, united as one, to lift their voices and let those in power know that we can do better, that we must do better.
For Asian American applicants to highly selective colleges, we can do better.
We must do better.