The Numbers and the Arguments on Asian Admissions

Justice Department inquiry renews debate over whether top colleges hold some applicants to an unfair standard -- and what the data say about Asian-American applicants.

August 7, 2017

The admissions world focused on issue of affirmative action last week with an intensity not seen since the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that the University of Texas at Austin's admissions plan met constitutional standards. That ruling reassured many admissions professionals who consider race and ethnicity in admissions.

So they were surprised -- and many were angered -- when first The New York Times and then others reported that the U.S. Justice Department plans to investigate and sue colleges over alleged illegal discrimination in admissions. Then came word from the Justice Department that the focus was a suit against Harvard University claiming that the institution discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

The Justice Department hasn't sued anyone, let alone won court backing for its view. But the news renewed complaints from some Asian-American groups that colleges discriminate in unfair ways against Asian-American applicants. And stories were shared of Asian applicants with perfect grades and test scores getting turned down by top institutions.

The data (as opposed to anecdotes) support arguments that might be used by those charging discrimination -- and also some that might be used on the other side. There are studies that suggest Asian-American applicants need to have higher grades and test scores than other applicants (including white applicants) to gain admission to top colleges.

But there are also data showing that, as a proportion of the U.S. population, Asian-Americans fare well beyond their numbers in admission to top colleges. Asian-Americans make up about 5 percent of the population of public high schools in the United States and were 22 percent of those admitted to Harvard's freshman class this year. Asian-Americans make up 26 percent of the undergraduate enrollment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Of course, those numbers may not reflect the full extent of qualified Asian-American applicants. And there is no consensus on what data would actually demonstrate illegal discrimination.

Following are summaries of what some of the data show and some of the key legal developments on the issue of alleged discrimination against Asian applicants.

Do Colleges Consider Race in Admissions?

Yes, but only some of them do so. Much discussion about affirmative action suggests that nearly all colleges consider race in admissions. Most don't.

More than two-thirds of colleges reported to the National Association for College Admission Counseling that the race and ethnicity of applicants has "no influence" on admissions decisions, and only 3.4 percent said that it has "considerable influence." Many critics of affirmative action argue that colleges don't tell the truth about their practices. In this case, however, a key fact is that the vast majority of colleges are not competitive in admissions and admit a majority of those who apply. (The elite private and public institutions one reads about in discussions of affirmative action are in fact atypical of higher education.)

Do Asian-Americans Outperform Other Students on Measures of Academic Performance?

The SAT and ACT are one part of admissions at most competitive colleges. Data released by the College Board last year don't provide for great comparisons, because a new version of the SAT had just been introduced, making it difficult to compare results from year to year. But data from the College Board from 2015 show Asian-American test takers outperforming other students, as seen in the table below. Further, the data show that, since 2006, Asian-Americans are the only racial or ethnic group to see gains in SAT scores, and that the gaps between their scores and those of other groups have grown substantially.

Mean SAT Scores by Race/Ethnicity, 2015

Group Critical Reading Mathematics Writing
American Indian 481 482 460
Asian-American 525 598 531
Black 431 428 418
Mexican-American 448 457 438
Puerto Rican 456 449 442
Other Hispanic 449 457 439
White 529 534 513

Combined SAT Score, and Changes Since 2006, by Race/Ethnicity

Group Combined Score 2015 Change Since 2006
American Indian 1423 -27
Asian-American 1654 +54
Black 1277 -14
Mexican-American 1343 -28
Puerto Rican 1347 -16
Other Hispanic 1345 -26
White 1576 -6

Similar patterns may be seen in ACT scores.

Also relevant may be scores on Advanced Placement tests. In 2015, the College Board reported that 72 percent of Asian test takers in the previous academic year earned at least one score of three on the AP exam (the level generally seen as indicating success), compared to 66 percent of white students, 50 percent of Latino students, 46 percent of Native American students and 32 percent of black students.

Do Colleges Hold Asian-American Applicants to Higher Standards?

One of the most controversial questions being debated is whether patterns in the average grades and test scores of members of various racial and ethnic groups demonstrate discrimination. Most competitive colleges use "holistic" admissions, meaning that they look at a variety of factors and don't use formulas or grids in admission.

It is also true, however, that some studies (including by educators sympathetic to affirmative action) show large gaps in the ACT and SAT scores of admitted students at top colleges and universities. One of the most cited studies comes from a 2009 book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life (Princeton University Press), which analyzed data on 9,000 students who attended one of 10 highly selective (and not identified) colleges and universities.

The research produced a grid showing the test score "advantage" or "disadvantage" for various groups who were admitted. The "advantage" referenced, to take an example from the book, is what it would take to have equivalent odds of admission, after controlling for other factors. So the table's figure of a 3.8 black ACT "advantage" means that a black student with an ACT score of 27 would have the same chances of admission at the institutions in the study as a white student with a score of 30.8.

The table uses ACT scores for public institutions and SAT scores for privates. The "norm" score was considered white for the race section, and middle class for the class section.

Advantages by Race and Class on the SAT and ACT at Selective Colleges, Fall 1997

Group Public Institutions
(on ACT scale of 36)
Private Institutions
(on SAT scale of 1600)
--White -- --
--Black +3.8 +310
--Hispanic +0.3 +130
--Asian -3.4 -140
--Lower -0.1 +130
--Working +0.0 +70
--Middle -- --
--Upper-Middle +0.3 +50
--Upper +0.4 -30

In an interview when the book came out, Thomas J. Espenshade, a sociologist at Princeton University and co-author of the book, said he did not think his data established bias against Asian-American applicants because he did not have access to "softer variables," such as teacher and high school counselor recommendations, essays, and lists of extracurricular activities. It is possible, he said, that such factors explain some of the apparent SAT and ACT disadvantage facing Asian applicants.

At the same time, he said he understood that these numbers would not reassure Asian applicants or those who believe they are suffering discrimination. "I understand the worry of Asian students, but do I have a smoking gun? No," he said.

What About Admission Rates?

Another Espenshade study, this one with Chang Chung, a senior staff member in Princeton's Office of Population Research, looked at data from elite colleges to see what would happen if race and ethnicity were eliminated from consideration. The study appeared in Social Science Quarterly in 2005.

The study found that, without affirmative action, the acceptance rate for African-American candidates at elite colleges would be likely to fall by nearly two-thirds, from 33.7 percent to 12.2 percent, while the acceptance rate for Hispanic applicants probably would be cut in half, from 26.8 percent to 12.9 percent.

White applicants would have seen little change in this analysis. Their admission rate would rise slightly, to 24.3 percent, from 23.8 percent.

The big gains would be for Asian applicants. Their admission rate in a race-neutral system would go to 23.4 percent, from 17.6 percent. And their share of a class of admitted students would rise to 31.5 percent, from 23.7 percent.

Do Those Kinds of Numbers Demonstrate Bias?

To many critics of affirmative action and some advocates for Asian-American applicants, such data constitute a smoking gun. But to government investigators so far, that's not been the case.

In 2015, the Education Department cleared Princeton University of bias against Asian applicants -- after a nine-year investigation in which it reviewed such data.

The reason Asian-American applicants have such a tough time getting into Princeton, OCR concluded, was that everyone has a tough time getting into Princeton.

The OCR report found that there are so many highly qualified applicants to Princeton that the university rejects many with stellar if not perfect academic records. And OCR found that Asians could also be found among some of the less than perfect applicants, as well.

"The university told OCR that 82 percent of the valedictorians in the applicant pool for the Class of 2010 were not admitted, and over 50 percent of applicants with perfect SAT I scores of 2,400 were not admitted," the OCR report said. "The university added that for the Class of 2010 -- for which the university admitted only 1,790 students -- there were more than 6,300 applicants who had SAT scores of 750 or higher on the math portion of the test, and there were more than 4,800 applicants that year who scored 750 or higher on the verbal portion of the SAT. More than 5,600 applicants for the Class of 2010 alone had GPAs of 4.0 or higher."

Princeton also told OCR (and the agency confirmed), “that less than stellar grades or test scores do not mean that an applicant is automatically foreclosed from admission. OCR in its file review found examples of applicants who did not have the highest quantifiable qualifications, such as grades and test scores, who were nonetheless admitted by the university based on other qualities and the overall strength of their applications. Some of these applicants were Asian.

“The university reported to OCR that the university ‘frequently accepted to the Class of 2010 applicants from Asian backgrounds with grades and test scores lower than rejected non-Asian applicants.’ The university gave OCR specific examples of Asian-American applicants for the Class of 2010 whose grades and SAT scores were not near the top of the range usually seen by the university’s admissions officers, but who nonetheless were offered admission. These included an Asian-American applicant who had ‘only’ a 3.45 GPA in high school, but who was a nationally recognized athlete; and two other Asian-American applicants with relatively low GPAs and SAT scores who were notable for other distinctions such as community service, overcoming impoverished backgrounds and working in a family business.”

What Is the Harvard Lawsuit?

The suit against Harvard was filed in 2015 by more than 60 Asian-American organizations. They too cited the Espenshade research. They also offered comparisons of the class makeups of Harvard and other elite colleges -- finding that many seemed to end up with same percentage of Asian students, which to the plaintiffs suggested some kind of agreement on an acceptable share of Asian students.

The lawsuit also compared Harvard's entering classes to those of the California Institute of Technology, which does not consider race in admissions. In 2013, according to the complaint, Harvard had 18 percent Asian-American enrollment, while Caltech had 43 percent. Similar studies have shown that Asian-American enrollment is much higher at institutions like the University of California's campuses at Berkeley or Los Angeles -- where a voter-approved state measure bans the consideration of race -- than it is at Ivy institutions that consider race.

While there have been a number of skirmishes in the suit, they have to date been preliminary.

Harvard is defending itself and rejecting the statistical evidence offered, saying that holistic admissions does not mandate that those with the highest SAT scores be admitted, and that it involves consideration of many nonnumerical factors.

"In his seminal opinion in Regents of University of California v. Bakke, Justice Powell cited the Harvard College admissions plan in describing a legally sound approach to admissions. Then and now, the college considers each applicant through an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations," the statement said.

Do All Asians Back the Lawsuit and/or Justice Department Investigation?

No. While many Asian-Americans do back these efforts, others don't. In fact, two Asian high school students who hope to one day enroll at Harvard have filed their own legal action, seeking to enter the lawsuit on behalf of the university's defense of its admissions standards. And this is the case even though these students might gain from Harvard being forced to abandon affirmative action.

But these students argue that they benefit from diversity and that, if admitted to Harvard, they want diversity to continue there. Further, they argue that lawsuit and related efforts shift attention away from other realities, such as that most Asian-American students aren't vying for Ivy admission. More Asian-American students would be helped, they argue, by a focus on community colleges rather than on Ivies. The tweet that follows is from one of the students.


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