Busting the Myth: Are Asian Americans Really Up for It?

May 23, 2011

Johnston Gate at Harvard Yard is hallowed ground for aspiring Ivy League students. Photo courtesy of Daderot

Asian Americans are not the first to have charged institutions of higher learning with surreptitiously manipulating admissions practices to exclude them: Jews did so in the 1920s, African Americans in the 1960s, and Asian Americans in the 1980s. This historical perspective shows us several important things. One is that college admissions practices have long been a moving target, shaped more by socio-political forces than by meritocratic principles. Therefore, the ways in which applicants are evaluated for admission will always come under suspicion, especially at those institutions that have become increasingly more selective, since they will never satisfy everyone’s sense of fairness.

As a professor of education, I have participated on numerous projects to understand better the higher education landscape for Asian Americans. Unfortunately, such research findings tend to fall on deaf ears because they compete against other stories that oversimplify the educational pathways for Asian Americans, and undermine our efforts to draw greater attention to the most pressing educational issues.

Recently, two stories have captured broad public attention. One surrounds parenting methods used to produce hyper-achieving students (Amy Chua's “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”). Another reports on how elite colleges hold Asian Americans to higher admissions standards than applicants from other race groups (Jon Marcus’ “Competitive Disadvantage”). Chua’s essay, as we well know, describes an approach to parenting, supposedly rooted in Chinese tradition, designed to produce, even at great cost, model high school students positioned to gain admission into one of the nation’s best colleges. However, Marcus warns that for Asian Americans, being great may not be good enough. He reports that White applicants were three times, Latinos six times, and African Americans more than 15 times as likely to be accepted at the same elite university as Asian American applicants who must have nearly perfect high school credentials in order to be admitted. Such popular stories can be especially powerful because they shape not only how the general public view Asian Americans but also how Asian Americans define our collective interests and then act upon them.

Researchers have for decades been challenging those model minority portrayals of Asian Americans by providing a broader context to understand educational achievement and selective admissions. For example, as part of a University of California multi-campus research program, which has since lost its funding, we issued a 2010 report, The State of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Education in California, showing that a significant number of Asian Americans in the state of California struggle with poverty and schooling. In another 2007 report, Beyond Myths: The Growth and Diversity of Asian American College Freshmen, 1971-2005, we highlighted problems regarding college affordability and preparation for Asian Americans. These findings from separate research projects point to a set of pressing educational issues that are not adequately communicated through the media.

But historical wisdom should remind us that there will never be enough spots at elite institutions to admit every outstanding applicant. Harvard, for example, rejected over 32,000 applicants for the Fall 2011 class, almost 94 percent of those who applied. Under such circumstances, “there's no amount of piano practicing that will help,” as one observer noted in Marcus’ article. Even though there are over 2,300 four-year institutions of higher education in the US to choose from, a majority of which is not selective, gaining college admission is now considered by many to be a hyper-competitive and stressful process. A small set of institutions have employed the law of human action that Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer discovered when he tricked his friends into painting Aunt Polly’s fence -- namely, that “in order to make someone want a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to get.”

Given the dynamics surrounding admissions at elite institutions, collectively organizing to challenge their volatile and suspect admissions practices through legal or policy means seems in the end to be a race to nowhere, as the title of an educational documentary suggests. After all, approximately 1,800 Asian Americans are enrolled in undergraduate studies at Harvard whereas over 200,000 Asian Americans are enrolled in community colleges in California alone. Even if we doubled the enrollment of Asian Americans on each of the eight Ivy League campuses, they would still only serve a small fraction of Asian American students compared to community colleges that serve approximately 40 percent of all Asian American undergraduates enrolled in US higher education. In the long run, addressing issues such as high school drop-out, access to financial aid, community college transfer, or remedial education -- which directly affect a greater number of Asian American families -- will have a more positive and lasting societal impact.

Still, we should not be silent about discrimination in college admissions. If it turns out that Asian American applicants face systematic discrimination (which may well be the case given the history of hyper-selective admissions), I would recommend going after what those elite institutions care most about: resources and reputation. Consider staging a national boycott of those institutions by refusing to apply to them or thereby further enhancing their prestige. Perhaps the economy of selective admissions is not unlike that of exclusive nightclubs; once the line at the door gets shorter, no one will care as much about getting in and the clubs will likewise stop manipulating how they admit patrons.

The drawback with a boycott of course is that Asian Americans would be defying societal norms and in this case, must be willing to endure the consequences of rebuffing the accumulation of status. While it may be one thing to boycott Abercrombie and Fitch for printing racist shirts, boycotting Harvard, Yale and Princeton is something else altogether. How we respond to recent popular stories may well set the tone for our collective sense of self-determination. It may require nothing short of a radical resistance against social norms, in order for Asian Americans to get on with addressing our most pressing educational issues, instead of the hottest media ones.

Mitchell J. Chang is Professor of Higher Education and Organizational Change and Asian American Studies (by courtesy) at UCLA. He has written over 70 publications, including a book that was cited in the US Supreme Court ruling of Grutter v. Bollinger. Also see Hyphen's article on college admissions in the new Bittersweet issue ("The Hard Part is Getting In"), in which Prof. Chang is interviewed.