By most measures, Harrison Kim is a successful high school student. Not only does he have stellar grades, the 18-year-old senior from Sammamish, WA, also plays guitar in a high school rock band and regularly performs volunteer work. Now, he faces one of the most daunting rites of passage into young adulthood: getting into a college of his dreams.
Kim’s application contains several characteristics that will catch the eye of admissions officers: 3.81 GPA, six AP classes, a score of 2270 out of 2400 on the SAT, recent recipient of an Eagle Scout badge, the highest Boy Scout honor. (To earn the badge, he played a central role in revitalizing a local stormwater retention pond. Kim, along with a team of volunteers he assembled, spent two sweaty summer weeks pulling shrubs and trees that had rendered the pond completely useless.)
But one attribute is out of his control. Kim is Korean American. Coupled with the fact that he wants to matriculate to such prestigious universities as Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Stanford, Kim fits the profile of a student who could very well be disadvantaged by the admissions process.
The existence of obstacles to Asian Americans gaining admission to elite universities stems from the perception that, as a group, they have performed relatively well in higher education. From 1976 to 2007, the percentage of Asian American college students increased from 1.8 to 6.7 percent, according to the US Department of Education. Most Ivy League schools now have undergraduate Asian American student populations between 15 and 20 percent; Caltech and the University of California, Berkeley, regularly top 40 percent. Considering that Asian Americans make up only 4.5 percent of the US population, many elite universities see an overrepresented pool of Asian American applicants when they pick their freshman class.
As the newest generation of Asian Americans like Kim seek college admission, the landscape they face shifts continuously. Some schools have historically held Asian Americans to a higher standard, whereas others have opened their doors and held out enticing offers to attract more Asian American applicants. Then there’s the University of California, whose new rules could sway its admissions toward more inclusion of historically underrepresented Asian ethnic groups — at the expense of some Asian American groups that have traditionally been admitted in high numbers.
Caught in the middle are students focusing on the balancing act of matching their own attributes and career interests with the academic programs and student preferences of colleges. But Asian Americans also deal with the added challenges of meeting higher academic standards, disproportionately applying to the most competitive majors, and picking a school that welcomes them and values diversity.
Often, several factors limit admissions for Asian Americans at elite universities, making it harder for seemingly qualified applicants to get in. Dan Golden, the author of The Price of Admission, which documents the advantages given to white applicants at elite universities, believes subtle quotas for Asian Americans come from three primary factors.
First, many seats at these schools are simply not available for Asian Americans because few are children of large donors, are athletes or are relatives of alumni, otherwise known as legacies. These groups receive preference in the admissions process and typically comprise about one-third of an entering class. Moreover, Asian Americans are not typically considered for affirmative action, unless the applicant hails from traditionally underrepresented groups, such as Southeast Asians.
“For most elite schools, close to half the seats on average go to somebody with an admissions preference,” Golden said. This means that most Asian Americans, as well as working- and middle-class whites, compete on only their merit for about half the seats available in any freshman class.
Second, Golden believes admissions officials consciously limit the number of Asian Americans for fear that they would become too large a part of the student body. Harvard, for example, has kept their Asian American enrollment under 20 percent over the last decade. “Why don’t they just cross 20 percent?” Golden said. “If it was based purely on merit, that mark would be crossed easily.” Universities flatly deny allegations of capping Asian American enrollment, yet they refuse to release information on what their applicant pool looks like.
Finally, Golden thinks admissions officers sometimes stereotype applicants. In his book, he points to a 1990 civil rights inquiry into discrimination against Asian Americans at Harvard. From 1979 to 1988, Harvard accepted Asian Americans at a rate of 13.2 percent, compared with 17.4 percent for whites. During the inquiry, federal investigators found that Asian Americans had to score higher than white applicants on exams to get in and were consistently ranked lower than white applicants for “personal qualities.”
In addition, Asian American applications consistently had more subjective comments made on them, such as being “quiet/shy,” “science/math-oriented” and “hard workers.” Other comments noted that “scores and application seem so typical of other Asian applications I’ve read: extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English.” In another example, one admissions staffer wrote: “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor.” (Harvard was eventually cleared of the charges. The university maintained that preferences for athletes and legacies — predominantly white applicants — are not racially discriminatory.)
While writing his book, Golden spoke with many Asian American applicants who were denied admission to elite universities despite their stellar credentials. “A perception exists that Asians are focused only on math and science and do not contribute to class discussions,” he said. “In my interviews, I haven’t found that to be true at all. My interviewees all had a wide range of interests and were very qualified individuals.” In his research, he found applicants with incredibly high SAT scores and grades, and who were also accomplished musicians, athletes, community service volunteers and authors; all were rejected from Ivy League schools. “The attitude of admissions is a monolithic view of Asian culture.”
In 2009, Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade offered quantitative evidence that Asian Americans are disadvantaged in the elite university applications process. He estimated that Asian Americans, on average, must score 140 more SAT points than white applicants in order to be admitted to the eight elite universities in his sample. (The University of California was not included.)
But there is little pressure on these universities to change their admissions biases. Mitchell Chang, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor who does research on Asian Americans in higher education, cannot think of an instance of collective legal or political action from the Asian American community on this issue in the last three decades. Instead, parents have simply resorted to putting more academic pressure on their kids.
“Parents on the ground are really concerned, and they think the strategy is to develop better applications,” Chang said. “They are pushing their kids to get better grades, score higher on exams and participate in all sorts of activities. It doesn't address the root causes, which is that discrimination against Asian Americans exists within admission offices.”
Oiyan Poon, a former University of California, Davis, student affairs staff member, is a veteran of the college application review process. Now a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, studying higher education access issues, she thinks a disconnect exists between how Asian Americans approach college admissions and what admissions offices actually look for.
“Many Asian immigrant families come from countries where cram schools to boost test scores are the answer to getting into a top university,” Poon said. “Parents also pick up on cues from universities and college rankings from US News and World Report that emphasize test scores and grades.”
Although grades and test scores are important, they serve as merely gatekeepers to the intense scrutiny of an applicant’s character and talents. And Poon believes that critical thinking about one’s strengths, motivations and career goals is often weak amongst Asian American applicants.
She also discovered that Asian Americans, as a whole, apply disproportionately to study the most competitive disciplines, namely science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Fifty-eight percent of Asian Americans chose such majors at UCLA, compared with 39 percent of white students. This likely reinforces the higher standards that Asian Americans must meet to gain admissions to top-tier institutions.
Choose Schools Wisely
Harrison Kim faces a higher standard because of his profile. He’s Korean American and lives in an upper middle-class community outside of Seattle, known for a golf course that regularly hosts PGA tournaments. Both of his parents immigrated to the United States as children and have college degrees. His father is a Boeing engineer and his mother is a homemaker. Kim hardly has the story of struggle that many admissions officers find touching when they look at minority applicants.
He also wants to be a doctor — but only after some convincing from his parents. Kim originally wanted to follow his passion for music. He has played the piano since age 4 and counts bass guitar, acoustic guitar and drums in his repertoire. He plays in a church band and a school band and even pens his own songs. Indeed, Kim has the skills to pursue a more creative, non-stereotypical career.
“But my parents suggested I be a doctor,” he said. “Three of my five uncles are also doctors. After doing some research and speaking with them, I think being a doctor is ideal for me. With Koreans, you want to make your parents proud.”
Kim never considered applying to a school that was hoping to attract more Asian Americans, as many liberal arts colleges around the nation do, actively seeking greater diversity. Students have to dig for these gems. When asked, Kim said applying to liberal arts schools “hadn’t really crossed my mind.”
In 2002, Kavita Kode chose to attend Whitman College, a tiny liberal arts school in Walla Walla, WA. She originally wanted to go to Yale, but her parents heard recommendations from colleagues at work about Whitman, ranked 38th among liberal arts colleges in US News and World Report. And Whitman does not fall short on prestige, consistently garnering the highest average SAT scores of all colleges in Washington. “My parents wanted me close to home and tried to convince me that Whitman was equivalent to an Ivy League education in the Pacific Northwest,” Kode said.
With only 1,450 students at Whitman, Kode was concerned about diversity. She had grown up in a predominantly white, middle-class suburb of Seattle and yearned for a college environment where she could become more closely connected with her Indian roots. At the time, Whitman had only a 7 percent Asian American student body, making a critical mass of Indian culture hard to come by.
Still, colleges like Whitman have one key advantage: They are keen to attract more Asian Americans in order to diversify their student body. When Tony Cabasco, Whitman’s dean of admissions and financial aid, entered Whitman as a young Filipino American student in 1986, the school was predominantly white and it had only one multi-ethnic student organization, where blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and international students coalesced under one big tent. At the time, students of color made up only 6 percent of the student body. Since Cabasco became the director of admissions in 2001, he has led efforts to diversify Whitman’s student body, especially to reflect the demographics of a state that has a sizable Asian Pacific Islander population: 7.5 percent. Today, Whitman has increased its minority enrollment to 23 percent, with about 11 percent Asian American.
But universities have more incentive to diversify their student populations than just to better reflect society’s demographics, Golden said. “I think lesser-known but great institutions like Washington University in St. Louis are eager to move up on rankings and would want a high-performing group like Asian Americans in their student body as well.”
Boosting minority enrollment has not been easy, Cabasco said, partially because Whitman’s name doesn’t have as much recognition as other elite schools. So Whitman, like many liberal arts colleges, has turned to creative minority recruitment strategies. The school partners with many community-based organizations, especially those that mentor and provide college prep services to underprivileged high school students, and offers a diversity scholarship for students it really wants.
Whitman even flies in up to 100 low-income students each year to see the campus, because Cabasco believes doing so provides a better opportunity to judge the university and Walla Walla on its merits. Golden noted that Oberlin College and Emory University host special weekends to bring in Asian American applicants. It is hard to imagine Berkeley or Harvard flying in non-athlete freshmen prospects.
Whitman’s desire to attract students of color, including Asian Americans, has so far been successful. In 2010, Whitman admitted 46 percent of all applicants, but it accepted 53 percent of all Asian American applicants and 54 percent of all students of color.
When Kode arrived on campus in fall 2002, she did not find the Indian American community she was looking for. The ethnic social events were a bit lacking, and her best friends were predominantly white and lived in her dorm. In her first year, she became jealous that her Indian friends at the University of Washington, the bigger state school in Seattle, had Indian parties, festivals and events to attend — even its own bhangra team.
Then, during her sophomore year, while walking to an event on racial diversity and tolerance, someone tried to run her over with a car. “I couldn’t recognize who it was, but they did roll down the window and yell ‘sandnigger’ at me,” she said. Other incidents followed, including one instance where campus security targeted minority students for security checks during a concert on campus.
Kode and her friends started a student group soon after to address racial discrimination on campus, organizing forums on diversity, cultural and social events at Whitman’s Intercultural Center, dialogue sessions during classes, and petitions to the administration to consider diversity when hiring.
And they saw results. A year later, when Whitman’s administration was searching for a new college president, diversity and racial tolerance was a top priority in the publicly released criteria for the search. Kode recently returned to Whitman for her sister’s graduation and noticed a significant difference only four years after she left. Besides an increase in students of color, there was a shiny new multicultural center on campus.
To support the increase in minority students, 15 to 18 percent of faculty and staff are people of color, twice what it was 10 years ago. “It’s still a work in progress, but diversity has become a part of the fabric here,” Cabasco said.
Espenshade, the Princeton sociologist, suggests that applicants would do well to look beyond big-name, elite universities that attract large numbers of Asian American applicants and focus on those that still treat them as a minority in admissions. “Sure, apply to Princeton,” he said. “But there are the Whitmans out there eager to attract more Asian students. Don’t just apply to the three top schools.”
Insert the Politics
Courtney Lee does not want to follow the stereotypical path of studying math, engineering or natural sciences at an elite university. The Chinese American San Francisco native seeks the smaller learning environments of liberal arts colleges. Her top choices are Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, and Connecticut College in New London, CT.
She is leaning toward a major in the social sciences and has strengthened her application with a plethora of nonprofit and community service experience. She volunteered with 826 Valencia, where she tutored writing to low-income students. She also worked for Garden for the Environment, a nonprofit that cultivates small urban gardens.
But her dream schools carry a hefty price tag. Both Hampshire and Connecticut would cost more than $50,000 annually in tuition and room and board. She hopes her scholarship applications and financial aid will come through for her.
As a hedge, Lee applied to some schools on the opposite end of the spectrum, namely large public universities: UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego. Many of her friends and family members convinced her to apply to these schools as an alternative because they believed that the University of California provided quality education at a more affordable price.
“They told me I could study the same subject matter and save money,” Lee said. “I wouldn't walk out with heavy loans.”
The notion that one can obtain a prestigious degree at a public university without spending a fortune has turned the 10-campus University of California system into the crown jewel for higher education amongst the state’s Asian American community. When California passed Proposition 209, banning the use of race as a factor in admissions in 1996, the Asian American student population system-wide increased from 25 percent in 1995 to 40 percent in 2009.
But black and Latino enrollment has suffered since Proposition 209. In 2005, UCLA had its lowest number of African Americans enroll: a paltry 96 out of a freshman class of around 4,000 students.
Because of this, University of California administrators began considering how to make their system more accessible to minority communities, and in 2008, they revised the rules determining applicant eligibility. These rules, which will go into effect for fall 2012, are meant to reduce barriers for underrepresented students.
The biggest change was to remove SAT subject tests as a requirement. Previously, students had to take two subject tests to be eligible, which was a barrier to applicants who could not afford the $47 to take the tests or were not informed they needed to take them. The University of California also increased the percentage of students guaranteed admission from each high school in the state. The old eligibility policy only gave the top 4 percent of students in each high school a guaranteed space at a University of California campus, though not necessarily their preferred campus. Now, the top 9 percent will have a slot, which benefits students from low-income communities who suffer the most serious achievement gap.
A third change reduced the percentage of students statewide who receive guaranteed admission, from the top 12.5 percent to the top 10 percent. Instead, the UC will make up the difference by admitting an additional 2.5 percent of students from an “entitled to review” pool, consisting of all students who have met requirements for coursework and taken the SAT.
But for Asian Americans who excel in tests and tend to make up a greater percentage of high achievers statewide, these changes might negatively impact their enrollment. When a group of Asian American academics and advocacy leaders met with the Board of Regents and asked it to do simulations in early 2009 on how these changes would affect admissions, initial results, prepared by the UC’s Institutional Research Office, seemed to threaten diversity across the board: African American admissions were predicted to drop by 27 percent, while Asian American and Latinos registered a 12 and 3 percent drop respectively.
Several Asian American professors and lawmakers called on the University of California to repeal the new rules. The media, including MSNBC and USA Today, ran articles on how the new University of California rules would decrease Asian American admissions.
Retired UC Berkeley ethnic studies professor Ling-Chi Wang is one who has called on the University of California to hold off implementation of the new policies pending further studies and most importantly, consultation with minority communities. “The new policy was formulated without the input and participation of racial minorities,” Wang said.
Wang argues that this policy, along with other changes the University of California made under the current era of fiscal austerity (decreasing total enrollment by 4,000 in the last two years and increasing tuition by 34 percent over the past year), would turn into a disaster for minority enrollment.
The University of California is thus implementing a policy that runs counter to its supposed objectives, Wang has concluded. “Why has the university dismissed the findings of its own studies?” Wang said. “They have broadly increased the applicant pool at a time of shrinking enrollment and rising costs. The new policy, in short, is a false promise, and if I may even put it more bluntly, a cruel hoax!”
UC Davis professor Mark Rashid, who chaired the committee that recommended the new rules, said they had not originally planned to do simulations but were asked to do so later by those who opposed the reforms. “We warned that the simulations had huge assumptions on applicant behavior built in behind them,” Rashid said. “In retrospect, they were probably worse than wild speculation.”
Rashid argues that the University of California has an obligation to eliminate the unnecessary barriers that prevent many qualified minority students from applying, especially since research has shown that the SAT subject tests do not really predict how a student would perform in college. “K—12 education in California is so inequitable, it’s borderline criminal,” he said. “Even if factors like tuition and fee hikes limit minority enrollment, does it mean we allow an eligibility policy that is clearly unfair?”
Poon, of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, also takes issue with the accuracy of the simulations, claiming they had a margin of error as high as 30 percent (the UC itself admits the projections have “a high margin of error”). Besides, she argues, predicting actual enrollment is impossible.
“Enrollment is only the last step, and the hardest thing to predict,” Poon said. “It comes after student and family decision-making, financial aid offers and the actual admissions process, which is determined differently at each of the 10 UC campuses. The new policy is only about eligibility to apply. It is pretty far removed from actual enrollment.” Poon advocates a wait-and-see approach: waiting to analyze the racial composition of the 2012 freshman class, the first to get admitted under the new rules.
Other Asian American student groups are backing this approach. When the policy changes were being considered between 2006 and 2008, Asian American student organizations joined with other minority groups to support the change as a means to increase access for all minority communities. Those of Southeast Asian heritage, for example, have college education attainment rates that match closely with the black and Latino communities. Fewer than 20 percent of Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Hmong Americans hold bachelor’s degrees, compared with more than 40 percent of Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese and Indian Americans, according to the 2000 census.
“Asian American communities are really diverse, and groups such as Southeast Asians, who are often not as affluent, have more difficulty accessing UC schools,” said Gregory Cendana, who was on the executive board of UCLA’s Samahang Pilipino, a group that allied with other Asian, black and Latino student organizations to advocate for the removal of SAT subject test requirements. “Any admissions process that includes less eligibility criteria will allow for more of these students to apply.” Ultimately, no one knows yet whether Asian Americans will be disadvantaged by these changes in the University of California system.
In April, the high school seniors met their college fate: Harrison Kim, the Eagle Scout with excellent SAT scores, was not accepted to any Ivy Leagues he applied to, but he did get into Tufts and the University of Washington, among others. Courtney Lee, who had highlighted her community work and scored above average on the SATs, was accepted to all 10 liberal arts and public colleges she applied to, including UCLA, Hampshire College and Connecticut College.
It becomes too easy to pin this result solely on the existence of Asian disadvantage. The choices that Kim and Lee made, such as the schools they applied to, the majors they picked, and the way they approached their college essays, could have affected this outcome. However, what also influences this result is the black box known as the admissions office. Each has a particular reason why they accepted or rejected these students — but the schools are not telling. As admissions offices begin a new round of recruiting, a new crop of Asian American students likewise plan on trying their luck in overcoming the odds stacked against them.
Full Disclosure: Hyphen Editor-in-Chief Harry Mok works in the communications department for the University of California Office of the President.
Lin Yang is a writer currently based in Taipei. He last wrote for Hyphen in Issue 15, about his experiences as an Asian American living in Helena-West Helena, AR, where he spent two years as a high school teacher as part of Teach for America. This story was funded in part by the Spot.Us community.