Disadvantaged by Race: Eliminating Perceptions of Bias in the College Admissions Process

Sheryl Jackson

November 27, 2017

One of most unusual queries that Sally Rubenstone, senior adviser for the college admissions counseling company College Confidential, ever received came from a young man who asked if he should apply as a mixed-race candidate. He had recently analyzed his DNA and discovered that although he was 96 percent Asian, he was also 2 percent African American and 2 percent Hispanic.

A common perception among Asian Americans is that they are at a disadvantage when applying to highly selective schools, explains Rubenstone, who is also a former college admissions counselor at Smith College. This perception leads some applicants to consider DNA analysis or other options that would allow them to identify as another race, she says.

Many times, an insincere effort does not place an individual in a different racial or ethnic category because — as in the case of the student who had just discovered his “mixed-race” status — the student has an Asian surname or his or her parents attended schools in Asia, says Rubenstone.

“If students — Asian American or other — do identify as mixed-race applicants and can talk about how that background influences their lives and will add to the diverse thought on a campus, then it is appropriate [to identify with that aspect of their identity],” she says. However, she adds that colleges “pride themselves on creating a student population that is diverse in not only race, but also in socioeconomic, geographic, academic, and social backgrounds.”

Despite some students’ belief that admissions decisions are biased against Asian Americans, OiYan A. Poon, PhD, assistant professor of higher education leadership in the School of Education at Colorado State University, says there is no evidence to support this claim. “Harvard and other highly selective schools do a good job publishing their demographics, and their admission numbers reflect the applicant pool,” explains OiYan, who is also chair of the American Education Research Association’s Special Interest Group on Research on the Education of Asian Pacific Americans. “Unfortunately, there is a perception that schools discriminate against Asian Americans, and many families assume that there is a quota set by admissions offices for certain groups.”Yet, the perception of bias in college admissions may ultimately cause some students to consider lying or to simply not reveal their race on applications. As a college counselor in a high school, Alyson Tom — associate director of college counseling at the Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Calif., and former assistant director of admissions at Rice University — always tells applicants to be honest and to disclose their race on college applications. “I believe it is unethical to actively hide who you are,” she says.

Poon says that when considering bias in the admissions process — for any group — it is important to understand the legal background. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded upon Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.’s controlling opinion in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case from 1978, which permitted the use of race as one “plus factor” in college admissions decisions.— meaning that race can be considered as one of many aspects, but it cannot be a determining factor. Additionally, in the 2003 caseGrutter v. Bollinger, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the University of Michigan (UM) Law School’s affirmative action program was applied correctly in an effort to provide a diverse learning community. At the same time, UM’s undergraduate program, which awarded points to applicants solely on the basis of race, was invalidated, Poon points out.

“Unfortunately, there are students and parents who still believe that schools use a quota or point system based on race,” she explains, “but we are living in a different world since before 2003.”

To ensure that decisions are not based solely on race, most colleges and universities in recent years have moved to a more holistic admissions process to create a diverse community. “There is a great deal of research that proves that a diverse learning environment with perspectives from people of different backgrounds and experiences provides the best education,” Poon says.

To achieve diversity, admissions officers evaluate applicants on their entire academic résumé, along with many other factors — only one of which may be race. “I had one dean of admissions for a selective, non-Ivy League school tell me that his office evaluates over 900 variables,” says Poon. Although she admits that she cannot imagine that many factors, Poon points out that the dean’s statement illustrates the complexity of the holistic review process.

Because students and parents often do not understand this process, Poon says it is not surprising if they notice that a high school classmate with a lower GPA was accepted at a school that rejected them. “They evaluate [their] classmates only on what they know, when there are many other factors that may have made a classmate’s application demonstrate a better fit for the college,” she explains. This is especially true when it comes to factors outside of test scores, grades, and school-based activities, she adds.

Admissions staffs are looking for applicants who stand out from others, says Brian Taylor, managing director of Ivy Coach, a private college counseling firm that specializes in helping students gain admission to Ivy League and other selective schools. “It is hard for an admissions officer who reviews a file in five minutes to see the differences among a group of students who all excel academically, hold first chair in the violin section, and are the math club president,” he explains. “All students, regardless of race, must use the application and the essays to present themselves not as well-rounded, but with an interesting perspective that they will bring to the campus.”

Tom says one of the reasons Asian Americans may perceive bias is that they tend to apply to a short list of schools that they consider excellent because they are familiar with the institution’s name and reputation. “I encourage students to look for institutions that actively recruit Asian Americans. There are a number of selective schools that [would love to have more] Asian Americans to improve diversity on their campuses,” she explains.

A survey of college admissions offices that Tom conducted gives her a list of options to discuss with her students and their parents to demonstrate the advantages of expanding the number and type of institutions to which they apply.

Schools such as Amherst College, Tulane University, Swarthmore College, George Washington University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are just a few that offer programs designed to attract specific groups of students. These and other institutions not only reach out to Asian Americans, but also to African Americans, Hispanics, first-generation students, and those from underrepresented socioeconomic groups.

Although the courts have upheld universities’ right to make admissions decisions based on a number of factors in order to create a diverse campus, Poon says the combination of a litigious society and a misunderstanding of the admissions process will continue to keep perceived biases — for or against certain groups — in the headlines.

“I believe that colleges need to do a better job explaining the holistic process, but that is difficult to do,” she says. Because admissions decisions are based on constantly changing requirements to manage enrollment — such as a new degree program, a need to add more liberal arts majors following an incoming class that was predominantly science- and math-focused, or new faculty — it is impossible to codify the process and guarantee that it will not change.

“The reality of the college admissions process is that it [changes]every year,” says Poon. “The campus setting … and the applicants are different each year.”

Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.