The College Admissions Debate & the Asian American 1%

December 12, 2011

by OiYan Poon,
with coauthor Oliver Wang


the season again: of holiday parties, excessive consumerism… and media hype over
whether elite colleges and universities discriminate against Asian Americans in
their undergraduate admissions process. This annual tradition may have begun in 2006 with Jian Li’s well-publicized lawsuit against Princeton. Li, who was a student at
Yale and later transferred to Harvard, alleged that Princeton exhibited an
anti-Asian admissions bias, in rejecting him despite his high test scores and

a year ago, the media exploded with debates over the Tiger Mom’s memoir on
extreme parenting. Among
Amy Chua’s spurious arguments was the suggestion that her brand of childrearing
helped explain why Asian Americans are highly represented, if not overrepresented,
amongst undergraduates at Ivy League schools and similarly selective
Now, in the early winter of
2011, comes the latest hackneyed
news story
how some mixed-race (hapa) Asian American applicants with non-Asian surnames
are avoiding identification with their Asian heritages as a precaution against
possible anti-Asian bias at top schools.

the last 5 years of this mainstream media-driven discussion, we have learned
two things:

  1. Clearly, the issue taps deep into a set of
    political, legal and cultural concerns and not surprisingly, the debate is
    often driven by “gut,” emotional instincts rather than empirical evidence. For
    example, the belief that Asian Americans are being actively excluded from top
    schools usually assumes that such policies are the product of either a)
    anti-Asian bias or b) an attempt to maintain student diversity via affirmative
    action policies. Accusations of the former are hard to take seriously, given
    that we are often the biggest or second biggest racial group on most elite
    campuses even though we are one of the smaller racial groups in America. For
    example, Asians constitute 5% of the American population but they are 13% of
    Princeton’s undergraduate body, 16% of Harvard’s and 22% of Stanford’s. In
    California, where Asians constitute 13% of the state population, Asian American
    students make up 42% of UC Berkeley’s undergraduate student body, constituting
    the largest racial group on campus. If there is anti-Asian bias at work on any
    of these campuses, it’s not being applied very competently.
  2. This debate distracts
    and draws energy away from the struggles for education mobility faced by the Asian
    American 99%. Overwhelming attention is focused on whether or not the Ivies,
    where Asian Americans represent between 13% and 30% of undergraduate
    enrollments, are capping their Asian American admissions numbers. Yet according
    to Robert Teranishi’s book Asians in the
    Ivory Tower
    , less than 1% of Asian American college students are enrolled
    in these elite institutions.

the past three months I have been in New Orleans, supporting the youth leaders
and organizers at the Vietnamese
American Young Leaders Association
(VAYLA). It’s striking to me that while
social media is blowing up with questions of anti-Asian bias faced by the Asian
American 1%, the debate is rather irrelevant to the community with which I
work. Not one VAYLA youth member or staff member has had a conversation, even
in passing, about the latest anti-Asian admissions policy uproar.

so many people wring their hands and beat their war drums to make the Ivies
accept more Asian Americans from the pool of highly qualified applicants, the
youth at VAYLA are fighting for basic educational resources. Like textbooks.

my collaborative research study with VAYLA youth leaders, published in the
report Six Public High Schools, Six Years
after the Storm
and documented in this video, the Raise Your Hand Campaign (RYHC)
research team found troubling inequalities from their survey of 450 high school
students (nearly 200 were Asian American). Some of the findings include:

  • Over
    70% don’t have textbooks to take home from school or use in class.
  • For
    that and other reasons, 20% of students are never assigned homework.
  • The
    majority of students not in AP classes were discouraged from taking AP classes
    because there wasn’t enough space for them.
  • About
    70% of Asian American students feel they were misplaced in ESL classes.
  • High
    student-to-counselor ratios prevent students from meeting with counselors.

Wednesday, December 14, the RYHC team at VAYLA will be staging a performance
and media event to present their recommendations to the New Orleans Recovery
School District Superintendent. In the holiday-themed production, youth will be
asking Santa Claus for:

  1. More
  2. Access
    to quality counseling, and
  3. Adequate
    homework support and tutoring services.

struggles of Asian American youth in New Orleans are the experiences of the
Asian American 99%. It’s high time we put the concerns of the elite 1% on the
back burner and devote a whole lot more attention to the large proportion of
Asian American youth who struggle to finish high school and strive to be the
first in their families to attend a college -- of any kind.

* * *

OiYan Poon is a visiting researcher at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She has been conducting an ethnographic study in New Orleans since September, and has been serving as an adult supporter and mentor to the Raise Your Hand Campaign at VAYLA. She earned her PhD in education with a graduate certificate in Asian American studies at UCLA.




[In California, where Asians constitute 13% of the state population, Asian American students make up 42% of UC Berkeley’s undergraduate student body, constituting the largest racial group on campus. If there is anti-Asian bias at work on any of these campuses, it’s not being applied very competently. ]

Actually, UC percentages of Asian Americans only dramatically spiked after state legislation removed race from admissions and became a more objective egalitarian admissions process. Among non-California schools, studies and books show that Asian
Americans must be significantly more qualified (across multiple
criteria) than others for the same chance of admission, showing that the problem
exists.  So, the data actually disproves your point, and suggests/confirms that qualified Asian Americans are excluded from non-California schools or require higher overall qualifications across multiple categories for the same chance of admission than peers of other racial categories. This isn't a problem only limited in "elite" situations but applies to all Asian Americans in all facets of society beyond admissions, where they must jump through higher bars for the same opportunities or to be included.

I agree, though, that there are many many Asian Americans unfairly grouped together as one homogeneous group and unfairly discriminated against even though they face socioeconomic and societal challenges and underprivileged backgrounds. I agree they should be eligible or have access to multiple forms of assistance that are currently not available to them, and have more attention brought to their challenges.

[Reply] Takagi's 1992 book was published before Prop209 and I'm not sure if the central thesis (admissions traded away racial preferences for class preferences) holds true.

re: a "spike". I don't think this is born out by the data. In fall 1994,at Cal, the Asian American student population was 39.4%. That was two years before 209 passed. Their Fall 2010 undergraduate population has Asian Americans pegged at 43%. A small increase, sure. But a spike? No. I direct people to Dana Takagi's exhaustive book on the topic of college admissions (including but not limited) to the UC system:
In the interests of moving this overall conversation forward than getting bogged down in what is sure to be the most contentious part of the argument above... Whether or not Asian Americans being unfairly excluded from elite colleges is an important topic but it's actually secondary to the main point that Oiyan and I were trying to make. This issue is pretty much THE only issue that gets discussed when it comes to Asian Americans and higher education. Simply ask yourself, "when's the latest time I read something about Asian Americans in college that didn't have to do with admissions policies?" (ok, Alexandra Wallace, excepted). For better or for worse (we're arguing, for worse), this one issue sucks up all the oxygen in the room and doesn't leave much time for the community to discuss, let alone focus, on other issues that may be equally, if not more important, to the 90-99% of Asian American college students who aren't enrolled in the Ivy Leagues or other top-ranked schools. As an analogy, imagine if all of the focus on Asian Americans in the workplace were a series of stories about Asian American CEOs trying to crack the Fortune 100 and that there was nothing looking at the working lives of Asian Americans in other sectors of the job market (let alone the unemployed). That'd be weird, right? Well, from a media analysis point of view, this is precisely what's happened with Asian Americans in higher ed. Almost everyone we know who studies professionally - educators, scholars, policy analysts, etc. - all have a similar concern: all this focus on elite school admissions leaves precious little time or attention on the higher ed needs of the vast majority of Asian American youth who'll never get within sniffing distance of Harvard or Stanford. (Damn, I wish we had included this point in our article. Alas, writing on a deadline, at the end of the semester adds up to "much hindsight.")
Hi Glad you brought up how schools in less affluent areas are hurting for materials. Our kids have no textbooks to take home. Homework is minimized so small I had to use a magnifying glass to read some of the questions. They shrink it to fit 4 normal sheets on one sheet of paper. I have sent in reams of paper and pencils and have used grocery money to buy used text books off line so the kids do not have to share in class. The only classes with a text book you can take home are the AP classes as AP makes it mandatory. There are not enough seats in AP or Honors classes for all the kids who want them. Kids are actually fighting to get in to these classes. Labs with lots of materials the kids do them at home or watch a video of the experiment being preformed. My son watches these labs online and is jealous that these kids got to do them at their school. The library having so little books has been a plus as my son an avid reader has had to read a lot of nonfiction although some is so out of date the books call Russia the USSR. It was bad before 2008 but it is even worse now as parents just do not have the money to help out as much. I must admit I am tired of hearing the problems of high middle class public school kids as they do not come close to what our kids have to deal with. So sorry you had to go to Berkley not Stanford.
I appreicate Oi Yan's thoughts on this issue. However, I disagree with her conclusions Oi Yan states that Asian Americans (AA) are 13% of Princeton’s undergraduate body, 16% of Harvard’s and 22% of Stanford’s. However, these numbers do NOT disprove discrimination. The fact of the matter is that AA must have higher SAT and GPA scores than other racial groups in order to gain admission to these elite institutions. For example, according to Thomas Espenshade's book "No longer separate, not yet equal," Asians must score 140 points higher on their SAT scores than their white counterparts to gain admission to elite institutions such as Princeton. The author Daniel Golden has documented similar statistics. There are a high number of Asian American students at elite institutions not because of a lack of discrimination, but rather due to the fact that there are so many highly qualified Asian applicants. I believe the statistics clearly demonstrate discrimination against Asian Americans in admissions to elite institutions. This matters because, for better or worse, many of the leaders of tomorrow in healthcare, business, media and politics get their start at these elite institutions.
I appreciate OiYan and Oliver's comments to what seems to be an annual "exposé" by the mainstream media and public on the issue of admissions and Asian Americans in colleges. Like you write, I guess it's around that time of the year again, when high school seniors are trying to get into the college of their choice. Contrary to public perception, many Asian Americans are still struggling with basic needs and rights. Of course, the media and public still lump all Asian Americans together.
This idiotic screed is based on a strawperson. Those who fight against discrimination in the admissions process are not fighting because they think elite colleges are "excluding" Asian Americans. Discrimination does not mean exclusion. Poon's argument is like those misogynists who argue that women are not discriminated against in the corporate world because some women are CEO's of large companies (like Avon, HP, IBM, etc). Women are not excluded from CEO positions but that does not entail that there is not great discrimination against them. Cherry picking a few examples of women who are CEOs does not show that women are not discriminated against in the corporate world. Just because few women are formally qualified and want to be CEOs of large corporations (far fewer than 1% of women in fact) doesn't mean that corporate discrimination against women isn't worth fighting for. Poon is the worst kind of Uncle Tam. She tries to undermine the good work of those fighting for the civil rights of minorities by using her ethnic credentials and causing a rift in the Asian American community by pitting one aspect of the community against the other. She tries to make a distinction between the "99%" and the "1%" not realizing that the same kinds of discrimination is behind all Asians in the admissions process. All Asians are discriminated when they apply to some colleges, not just 1% of them. They are all put on a higher standard than whites and others.