Where do Asian Americans stand when it comes to race and higher education? This question is driving much of the news coverage related to race and college admissions now that Students for Fair Admissions, led by Edward Blum (a conservative activist who has also advocated rolling back voting rights for minority voters) is suing Harvard University for discrimination against Asian Americans. Underlying the suit is a questionable assumption: that Asian Americans face a systematic penalty in admissions processes that use “holistic review” processes to admit students.
Holistic review – an approach to admissions that emphasizes the importance of many factors (including, sometimes, race) in addition to traditional academic measures – is used by most colleges and universities. But this case is not really about the 2,000 undergraduates admitted to Harvard each year. Blum’s organization is behind several recent and pending anti-affirmative action cases, some of which have made it to the Supreme Court. This case is about pitting one community of color against others to dismantle holistic review and affirmative action across the country.
With the Harvard case, Blum is offering a new twist from his past assaults on civil rights. By claiming Asian Americans are the victims, Blum attempts to shield Students for Fair Admissions from accusations of hoarding privilege for whites, potentially disarming some groups who have fought against exclusionary admissions policies in the past.
In particular, Blum has recruited some Asian Americans to his cause by highlighting the fact that Asian-American students were rated lower than other students on “personal” traits by admissions officers. Numerous media reports in recent weeks have uncritically accepted the plaintiffs’ description of the domain in question as a “positive personality” score – terminology that understandably stokes outrage among people familiar with a stereotype of Asian Americans as maladjusted nerds. Let’s take a closer look.
Ratings of personal traits and factors other than test scores help colleges to evaluate each student within a broader context. This is the point of holistic review – not to compensate groups for academic deficiencies, but to recognize the very real value to universities, to the workforce, and to civil society, of traits and experiences that are not always well-represented by tests and grades.
Who has more promise, a student who scores 35 on the ACT or a student who scores 33 but who went to a school with no calculus courses – a reality twice as likely to be experienced by black and Latino students? That is a question that admissions officers have the right to consider. What about a student who excels in the face of racism, or despite having parents who don’t speak English? Might that student be more likely to survive the rigors of college and make a meaningful contribution to the world after college than one who had an easier path?
Blum’s organization argues that admissions should be based on academic factors alone, primarily standardized test scores. Asian Americans, on average, do score higher on standardized tests than other groups. Among the most important predictors of test scores are parents’ education and income. And not coincidentally, Asian Americans as a group exhibit the highest levels of income and education in the nation. This is the result of hyper-selective immigration policies. Keep in mind that 8 percent of China’s population has a college degree compared with 50 percent of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. Few would support admitting students based on family income or parental education; but this is, in effect, the argument of those who believe that standardized tests should be the single most important factor among the dozens of measures of promise that post-secondary institutions routinely use in making admissions decisions.
Asian Americans are more likely to attend an elite, private, four-year institution than any other racial group. Test scores, of course, do play a major role in admissions and many Asian-American students are advantaged in this area. On the whole, they are more likely to be able to afford expensive test-prep courses and benefit from high-performing public schools available in high-income neighborhoods.
But if one believes that all children start with essentially equal potential, then differences in test scores and associated admission rates between racial groups and can only reflect major racial inequalities in society and unequal learning opportunities in our schools. And that is what we observe.
Data from the UCLA Civil Rights Project show that Asian American students are the least likely to attend segregated schools. In contrast, the share of black students in racially-segregated schools has actually risen since the Supreme Court struck down legal racial segregation in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. Black students not only live farther from high-quality schools than Asian Americans, they are also referred to gifted-programs at lower rates even with the same levels of achievement, and are offered differential opportunities even within the same schools.
Holistic review also benefits Asian Americans. Many poor Asian Americans face educational barriers as well. For example, Asian Americans who do not live near high-performing public schools, especially those who are low-income or whose families arrived in the U.S. as refugees from South East Asia, demonstrate much lower levels of academic achievement than the U.S. average.
The majority of Asian Americans are on the side of educational equality. Survey after survey show that a majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action. Media reports tend to focus on a vocal minority who say the policy is unfair to Asian Americans. But in both a 2012 National Asian American Survey and a 2014 survey conducted by AAPI Data, more than 65 percent of all Asian Americans expressed support for affirmative action. Media coverage that emphasizes the so-called “Asian Penalty” plays into the hands of people trying to undermine this support, and it is a frightfully inaccurate portrayal of a process that yields four times more Asian-American admits than their proportion of the college-age population.
Janelle Wong is a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
David Silver is Senior Advisor and Founder of the Center for Evaluation and the Study of Educational Equity at RTI International