A recent investigation into alleged discrimination against Asian-American college applicants has prompted discussion about admissions policies at Penn and throughout the Ivy League.
Last week, the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights began looking into whether Harvard and Princeton universities discriminate against Asian-American applicants in their admissions processes.
The investigation came in response to a complaint from an Asian-American student whose application was denied from both institutions. The student alleged that, in spite of high SAT scores and excellent grades, he was rejected because of his ethnicity.
Because of the nature of college admissions at elite institutions — being both highly subjective and competitive — it will be difficult for the OCR to “tease out” the question of outright discrimination, according to Penn Dean of Admissions Eric Furda.
Still, the case is raising questions both nationally and here at Penn about whether Asian-American students face higher standards in admissions, and what should be done about it.
At Penn and its peer schools, “we’re not discriminating against students or any class of students because of their background, whatever their background may be,” Furda said. “Extremely difficult decisions are made in what is a highly selective process.”
According to research conducted by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade, however, admissions numbers bring to light several gaps between the bar of entry for Asian-American students and other applicants. In his book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life, Espenshade found that the average SAT score of Asian-American students was about 140 points higher than for other applicants, or a 3.4-point boost on the ACT composite.
Experts stress, though, that there’s much more to an applicant than grades and scores.
“Test scores are obviously only one part of the admissions decision, and so by themselves don’t say anything,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Michele Hernandez, president of Hernandez College Consulting, noted that other factors can still explain the gap in test scores.
“I think colleges unintentionally discriminate against Asians, in that a lot of the things they look for — like deep passion, love of learning, real go-getters — sometimes go against the Asian stereotype,” she said.
Still, she said, there is little question that Asian-Americans face extra difficulty — a feeling echoed among some Penn students.
“I think there’s a sense that, ‘because I’m Asian-American, I have to set myself above all the other Asian Americans,’” said College junior and Chinese Students’ Association President Anthony Tran.
Tran acknowledged that there are other components to college admissions that aren’t purely meritocratic, but he said this can be frustrating for applicants.
“There’s a narrative that if you do really well in high school, you can go anywhere,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, that image is shattered.”
“It’s fair to hope for a meritocracy,” added College senior Nicky Singh, the former chair of the Asian Pacific Student Coalition. “Race is not something you can control, and I can see where the frustration comes from.”
But Singh, like many Asian-American student leaders, was sympathetic to the challenges admissions officers face in creating a diverse student body.
“When they put together a class,” he said, “they’re attempting to put together a mosaic, and they need all the puzzle pieces to fit together.”
Tran pointed to examples like the University of California system, which wholly did away with race-based considerations in its college admissions process in 1996. Soon after that time, the U.C. system’s Asian-American population soared to an all-time high of 40 percent, much higher than the proportion of the state population.
According to College sophomore and APSC Vice Chair of Political Affairs Nishat Shahabuddin, one concrete step that College Hall could take to improve understanding of how Asian Americans are treated in the admissions process would be to release better disaggregated admissions data for minorities and minority subgroups.
Ultimately, while Shahabuddin said it is impossible to tell whether there is bias in the admissions process without detailed data, she noted that the attention drawn by the OCR investigation would be positive.
“While I don’t know for sure that [Asian Americans] are discriminated against, I do think that it’s really important to at least give attention to issues like these,” she said.