In his new book, Earning Admission: Real Strategies for Getting Into Highly Selective Colleges, the strategist Greg Kaplan urges Asians not to identify as such on their applications. “Your child should decline to state her background if she identifies with a group that is overrepresented on campus even if her name suggests affiliation,” he advises parents, also referencing Jews. Such tips are increasingly common in the college-advising world; it’s not unusual for consultants, according to The Boston Globe, to urge students to “deemphasize the Asianness” in their resumes or avoid writing application essays about their immigrant parents “coming from Vietnam with $2 in a rickety boat and swimming away from sharks.”
It’s sad that this is what elite-college admissions have come to: a soul-deadening process that encourages students to distort their identities solely for the sake of getting in. But the rampant racism to which these pointers allude, if real, is even sadder. According to some activists, brilliant, accomplished, and well-rounded Asian students are consigned to gaming a system that’s rigged against them. Either that, or they have to prove themselves extra brilliant, extra accomplished, and extra well-rounded to ensure they’re on equal footing with non-Asian applicants. The premise is that affirmative action enables colleges and universities to discriminate against Asian applicants simply because there are so many of them on campus already.
Some Asian Americans have had a beef with race-conscious admissions for decades. Traditionally one of affirmative action’s biggest beneficiaries—so much so that the practice originally contributed to their reputation as the “model minority”—Asian Americans started to turn against it once they were no longer considered underrepresented. They’ve since been inundated with stories about prodigiously accomplished Asians being rejected from top schools. Today, they’ve in many ways become the face of the anti-affirmative action movement.
Last Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin, a decision many observers described as “a victory for affirmative action.” For many Asian Americans who would like the admissions process to be more colorblind, though, the fight is far from over. Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin, they argue, only scraped the surface of a much deeper, much more insidious problem: the exclusion of deserving Asian Americans from higher education.
But it’s far from clear that race-conscious admissions policies actually put the so-called “model minority” at a disadvantage. Nor is it clear that Asians and affirmative action are the foes that the headlines and lawsuits and petitions make them out to be.
California has prohibited affirmative action at public institutions for two decades, and the ban certainly hasn’t hurt Asian Americans, who today account for a plurality—about a third—of the students at University of California schools despite making up just 15 percent of the state’s population. But when the state senate introduced a Democrat-backed amendment that would’ve asked voters whether to lift the ban, Asian Americans staged public demonstrations and wrote blistering editorials; they hosted a Republican-registration drive (“to scare the Democratic Party”) and gathered on TV talk shows to warn viewers of the proposal’s implications.
“This is the most racist bill ever,” said a participant on one such show. “We come from a faraway land, China, and [we came] here to pursue fairness, equal education opportunities. Education is an essence and a core value of our culture, and we pass it along to generations and generations … In the future, when [our kids] grow up, it doesn’t matter how much we devote to their education, it doesn’t matter how much effort they put into their own education—years of work will be gone, only because of their skin color.”
Much of the wrath has been targeted at Ivy League schools, which consider a range of academic and non-academic factors in the admissions process. Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA)—a group representing primarily Asian American students and parents—contends in a lawsuit that Harvard College uses implicit racial quotas even though they’re illegal. (It accuses the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill of similar allegations in a separate lawsuit.) Despite being the country’s fastest-growing minority group, and despite applying to college in greater and greater numbers, the percentage of Asians admitted at elite schools has, according to SFFA, essentially flatlined over the last two decades. “That suggests that Harvard and the other Ivies have a hard-fast, intractable quota limiting the number of Asians that they will expect,” said Edward Blum, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the president of SFFA.
Whereas Asian American enrollment at the California Institute of Technology, which bases admission strictly on academics, grew from 25 percent in 1992 to 43 percent in 2013, it slightly decreased at Harvard—from 19 percent to 18 percent. SFFA also points to a widely cited Princeton study, which in 2005 found that an Asian American applicant must score 140 points more than her white counterpart on the 1600-point SAT.
The Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) uses similar logic in a separate civil-rights complaint, which requests that the Education and Justice departments investigate the admissions processes at Yale University, Brown University, and Dartmouth College. The AACE, which represents more than 130 organizations, contends that the schools, in relying on de facto racial quotas and stereotypes, deny admission to highly qualified Asian American applicants while admitting non-Asian students of equal caliber.
Asians have been victimized by race-based policies throughout the country’s history pointing to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the WWII-era Japanese internment camps, among other injustices. The Asian race, critics argue, includes countless ethnicities that are sorely underrepresented in higher education yet all clumped together in a single category on application forms: Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong, for example. According to the AACE, the complaint represents the largest joint action ever taken by Asian Americans against the Ivy League.
Discrimination against Asian American students even came up in Fisher. In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito emphasized that the University of Texas—which automatically admits students from the top 10 percent of each public high school in the extremely segregated state—enrolls fewer Asian Americans than it does Hispanics. Unless the university is illegally massaging the racial composition of its student body so that it reflects the state’s population, in which Hispanics outnumber Asians, he argued, “it seemingly views the classroom contributions of Asian-American students as less valuable than those of Hispanic students.”
What may be at issue in all these cases is colleges’ “holistic” approach to admissions—the fact that they don’t admit students based entirely, or at least almost entirely, on academic merit alone and consider more subjective factors such as diversity of experience, nonacademic achievements, and field of interest. Despite its prevalence and nice-sounding name, some polls suggest Americans aren’t too fond of holistic admissions. In 2013, Gallup asked respondents to choose one of the following: “Applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit, even if that results in few minority students being admitted” or “An applicant’s racial and ethnic background should be considered to help promote diversity on college campuses, even if that means admitting some minority students who otherwise would not be admitted.” It found that two in three adults answered in the former.
“Primarily, [admissions] should be merit-based because a college is an educational institution,” said YuKong Zhao, the president of the AACE. “In our view, the fundamental way to improve [disadvantaged students’] education conditions, the fundamental way to improve diversity, is really through improving the K-12 education in [those] disadvantaged communities.”
In using holistic admissions, colleges are trying to build a class of students with varied interests and backgrounds, which can mean quotas for the number of admitted people who want to go into engineering, for example, or the number who come from California. This practice, Zhou argues, amount to a dangerous, underhanded form of “social engineering.” In fact, critics say that holistic admissions were actually the brainchild of the then-Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell as a means of reducing the number of Jews on campus in the early 1900s. On top of test scores and academic records, the school started asking applicants to provide personal essays, an interview, and even a photo, ostensibly to ensure opportunity for “serious and ambitious students of average intelligence.”
When I asked Blum, the SFFA president, whether the holistic-admissions policy effectively means fewer Asians on campus—because, say, they generally pursue fields like engineering and computer science and physics at higher rates than other students—he was quick to describe that as a stereotypical assumption. “I just don’t believe that out of the 15,000 Asians applying to Harvard that they’re all little computer geeks, I don't believe it,” he said. Why should a perfectly eligible Asian student be denied admission to a top school just because she expresses interest in a particularly popular major?
It’s possible, however, that the sentiments embodied in the complaints and calls to action reflect just a vocal minority of the country’s Asian American communities. In 2012, the National Asian American Survey found that three in four Asian Americans support affirmative action. The 2016 Asian American Voter Survey similarly found substantial support when it asked respondents, “Do you favor or oppose affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better access to higher education?” A majority of respondents—64 percent—said they think it’s a good thing, while just 25 percent said it’s a bad thing. Even when the question was framed in less positive terms—“Do you think the affirmative action program designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses are a good thing or bad thing?”—most respondents still said they think it’s a good thing. Interestingly, opinions on both questions varied depending on the ethnicity, with most Chinese respondents opposing affirmative action and overwhelming majorities of Vietnamese and Filipinos, for example, supporting it.
It’s statistics such as these that organizations such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) and scholars such as Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political-science professor at UC Riverside, highlight when suggesting that the Asian Americans who vociferously oppose affirmative action don’t reflect Asian Americans as a whole.
More than 160 Asian American groups filed briefs in support of UT’s affirmative-action program, representing organizations including (AAJC) and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Such broad support for race conscious admissions policies sends a clear message that AAPIs overwhelmingly support these policies and will not be used as a racial wedge to disenfranchise other communities of color,” Laboni Hoq, the litigation director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles, said in a statement. Affirmative action, these supporters argue, benefits all Americans promoting the short- and long-term benefits of diversity.
AAJC believes that race-conscious holistic admissions actually benefit Asian Americans, particularly groups like Cambodians and Laotians that do face significant barriers to education. “Many of the things we have fought for in continuing to maintain both the policies and principles behind affirmative action are designed not only to help the overall population but also specific subgroups such as my community,” said Mee Moua, a Hmong American who serves as the president and executive director of AAJC. “The way in which the story [about Asian American opposition to affirmative action] is being told is through this assumption of the model-minority myth … There’s a presumption that somehow this highly achieving community doesn’t care about the impact of affirmative-action policies.”
According to Moua, “the faction of Asian Americans publicly opposed to affirmative action is misguided and doesn’t understand that what they’re opposed to is ‘negative action’”—i.e., quotas and discrimination, even though such practices are blatantly illegal. Indeed, some research has suggested that it isn’t affirmative action that hurts Asian Americans, but rather negative action, and that eliminating affirmative action would hurt Asian Americans. AAJC, Moua said, strongly opposes negative action, but “we can’t do anything about that until there’s a set of facts.”
There’s little, if any, concrete evidence to suggest that elite colleges are indeed using racial quotas. The Education Department, for example, last September said it didn’t have enough proof to conclude Princeton University had discriminated against Asian students, as alleged in a complaint. And although groups like SFFA cite Asian American enrollment statistics in California as evidence that the Ivy League schools are proactively capping their Asian numbers, the reality is that such students have long attended UC schools in large numbers—even before the affirmative-action ban. In 1992, Asian Americans accounted for about 40 percent of new freshmen at UC Berkeley, for example; in 2012, it was 43 percent. Perhaps that relative stagnation is because Berkeley—like Harvard and Yale and Brown and Dartmouth—practices holistic admissions. And perhaps holistic admissions effectively result in some racial leveling.
As for the apparent inconsistencies in public opinion, what it may come down to is a generational fissure in America’s Asian population. The groups behind the lawsuit and federal complaints, as researchers point out, are comprised largely of foreign-born immigrants, many of them from China. These are people who believe, deeply, in the premise of the American Dream—the idea that the U.S. is a meritocracy. The Asian American organizations that support affirmative action tend to be older, comprised largely of people who were born in the country, and have well-established alliances with other civil-rights groups—including those advocating for blacks and Latinos.
Ultimately, facts may, according to Moua, be key to closing that divide. “It doesn’t serve our purpose to isolate our community members who have stood in opposition to affirmative action,” she said. “It’s important to recognize that … while they may mislabel their rationale [for opposing race-conscious admissions], underlying that is a deep and likely valid concern about discriminatory practices.”
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.
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