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University Admissions, Now Twice As Hard For Asian Americans

Facing a double barrier
Facing a double barrier
Betty Ng


This is the time of year when American colleges inform applicants whether they’ll be accepted or not. Admission to prestigious universities grows tougher every year. Stanford University"s acceptance rate has fallen from 22.4% in 1970 to 5.7% in 2013. It's the same for the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Yale — they all have a record low acceptance rate.

As is always the case, reports that prestigious universities "discriminate against Asian-American students" are frequent. In many places the college recruiting process is a sensitive issue. This is because education is regarded as an equalizer that can narrow the gap in both competitiveness and living standards between the rich and the poor, as well as between different ethnic groups. Any sign of bias or discriminatory selection process in university admission is bound to be linked to the very real impact on social and economical conditions, including the disparity of wealth.

What's "fair"?

In China, regardless of wealth, health or intelligence, everyone has to take a college entrance exam to get into a university. Many hold the view that this is the fairest mechanism, where decision are made based on objective scores, regardless of background or geography. This is a particularly common Asian selection method, and from China to Hong Kong to South Korea students invest in tutorials in the hopes of standing out in public exams.

Meanwhile, American universities — the elite ones in particular — assess an applicant's qualification according to various factors. Though academic performance and exam scores are still important, a student's personal qualities, family background and achievements in extracurricular activities are also taken into account. This is meant to evaluate a student's all-around performance and potential. If a disadvantaged student performs as well in all aspects as a student from a well-to-do family, he or she will gain more credit than the latter and have a higher chance of being admitted.

Therefore the concept of a "fair admission" has a very different meaning and interpretation in the U.S. and China. Some believe the Chinese system favors the wealthy, who tend to have a better learning environment. This in turn exacerbates income disparity for future generations.

Others believe it is the American way of admission that discriminates, with the victims being the wealthy, who have to redouble their efforts to prove their worth.

The purpose of higher ed

If a university is there purely to provide academic training to people with previous excellent academic results then the Chinese method is perhaps fairer. But if higher education is also to bear some responsibility for balancing social and economic opportunities, then the U.S. approach is more desirable.

As a matter of fact, both systems have a certain unfairness in their selection processes. Indeed, prestigious American universities always reserve a quota for the descendants of the rich and the powerful — those who come from families with generations of alumni, who often are major financial donors to the institution.

Ethnic minorities in America, including Asians, are all part of the U.S. university selection mechanisms. However it's disturbing that evidence shows that in relation to other ethnic groups such as African Americans or Latinos, Asian students are often treated unfairly in the admission processes of prestigious schools.

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Graduation day at Harvard — Photo: Joe Hall

Asian-American students generally have higher academic outcomes and test scores. They account for 11% of the total of U.S. senior high school students but make up 60% of the "National Young Scholars.” Yet Asian-American students’ admission rate to elite universities fail to reflect this, nor does it reflect the growth of the Asian-American general population.

Some universities justify this by saying that the admissions assessment is an overall consideration of an individual — indirectly meaning that Asian Americans are under-achieving in the aspects of leadership, independence, curiosity or that they somehow won’t fit in with the college's particular ethos.

A well-rounded student

To a certain extent this interpretation may be justified. Many Asian immigrants' children perhaps inherit their parents' emphasis on academic achievements and neglect to explore their unique potential or fail to cultivate qualities of independence, spontaneity and leadership.

However, there are some problems in explaining Asian Americans' low admissions rate with this "overall assessment” defense. Celebrated American colleges usually assess each applicant's scores with a series of academic and non-academic criteria. The ones with the highest scores have the best chance of entry. Yet, as UCLA professor Richard Sander found out, in his school, African Americans and Latinos have a higher acceptance rate than the scores require for proportional admission. Along with the white population, Asian Americans are discriminated against as top universities aim to keep a balance among ethnic groups, with Asian ethic group usually makes up 14-17% of the total of students

Add to that a new factor that may make it even more difficult for Asian-American applicants. More and more affluent students directly from Asia, particularly those from China, are applying to these prestigious universities. And at the same time, because of the economic crisis and the astronomical tuition fees, a growing number of American students are applying for financial aid. As a result, American universities have been accepting more rich Asian students from abroad.

In other words, Asian-American applicants now face a double barrier to entry at U.S. universities.

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