Is There an Asian Dissuasion in College Admissions? Is There an Asian Dissuasion in College Admissions?
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Is There an Asian Dissuasion in College Admissions?

by Nikhil Swaminathan

February 13, 2010
An op-ed in the Boston Globe this week by Kara Miller, a former Yale admissions officer and current adjunct professor at Babson College takes aim at the question: Are Asian-American students held to higher standards in the college admission process?While she relies primarily on SAT scores for her argument-a metric by which Asian-Americans outscore Hispanic, black, Caucasian students-she admits test scores aren't everything. However, from her days as a reader in Yale's admissions office, she has some anecdotal evidence that goes beyond SATs.
[I]t became immediately clear to me that Asians - who constitute 5 percent of the US population - faced an uphill slog. They tended to get excellent scores, take advantage of AP offerings, and shine in extracurricular activities. Frequently, they also had hard-knock stories: families that had immigrated to America under difficult circumstances, parents working as kitchen assistants and store clerks, and households in which no English was spoken. ... [M]ost elite universities appear determined to keep their Asian-American totals in a narrow range. Yale's class of 2013 is 15.5 percent Asian-American, compared with 16.1 percent at Dartmouth, 19.1 percent at Harvard, and 17.6 percent at Princeton.
This paragraph reminded me of a five-year-old Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker about how Ivy League universities reacted to booming numbers of Jewish students in their institutions during the 1920s.
By 1922, they made up more than a fifth of Harvard's freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard's president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school ... The difficult part, however, was coming up with a way of keeping Jews out, because as a group they were academically superior to everyone else. Lowell's first idea-a quota limiting Jews to fifteen per cent of the student body-was roundly criticized. Lowell tried restricting the number of scholarships given to Jewish students, and made an effort to bring in students from public schools in the West, where there were fewer Jews. Neither strategy worked. Finally, Lowell-and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton-realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit.
I doubt that admissions officers harbor such xenophobic feelings towards Asian students, but it seems as though many elite universities decided on the first of the paths that Lowell considered. If it was an idea that drew so much criticism 90 years ago, why is it an acceptable practice today? Is an unofficial quota the fairest course of action to counter the achievement gap?Photo (cc) by Flickr user Lifeless_Ordinary
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Is There an Asian Dissuasion in College Admissions?