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BOSTON -- "Should I try to be less Asian?" "Will being Asian hurt my chances?"

These are questions that Alyson Tom, associate director of college counseling at the Castilleja School, in California, said she hears with regularity. Tom shared the questions to say that she understands the fears of Asian-American students and their parents about the college admissions process. Many believe that they will have a more difficult time gaining admission to top colleges than will students from other racial and ethnic groups.

Tom doesn't believe the bias is real. But she said here -- at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling -- that the perception is widespread and has a real impact.

When asked those questions, Tom said that admissions counselors should never encourage anyone to hide their background. "I believe it is unethical to advise students to hide their identities or to be anything but what they are," Tom said.

Tom spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the NACAC meeting, an impressive turnout for a session at 8:30 Saturday morning.

With word that the U.S. Justice Department is investigating alleged discrimination against Asian-American applicants to Harvard University, the issue of alleged bias (always talked about in hallways at NACAC) is more prominent than ever.

Randolf Arguelles, director of the San Francisco branch of Elite Prep, a test prep and college admissions counseling company, opened the session by talking about why people believe bias exists (while he stressed that he wasn't necessarily agreeing with the evidence).

He noted that campuses of the University of California, where consideration of race is banned, have undergraduate classes where well over 40 percent of students are Asians -- while private colleges that consider race end up with half that share. The relatively low shares of students at the Ivies, he said, also seem suspect when compared to elite high schools that select students based only on test scores.

At Stuyvesant High School, in New York City, he noted, 74 percent of students are Asian Americans.

And every now and then, quotes from admissions leaders surface that back up the sense that Asian Americans are not valued. He cited the example of the late Fred Hargadon, who was dean of admissions at Princeton University from 1988 to 2003. In an interview with Princeton's alumni magazine, quoted in the book The Chosen, Hargadon speculated that the admit rates for Asian applicants at Princeton were lower because Asian families value academic success. Princeton's "emphasis on energy level outside the class, or taking part in activities ... has turned out for many Asian-American students to be a handicap."

Arguelles let that quote sink in: Princeton's chief admissions official (not in the 1950s, but as recently as 2003) criticized Asian-American students for being ... good students. Later in the talk Arguelles encouraged admissions officers to listen to the way they talk about candidates, and to substitute "white" for "Asian" to test themselves. "If you wouldn't say that a candidate was very outgoing for a white person," Arguelles said, you shouldn't say that for an Asian applicant.

And he cited a survey of admissions directors last year by Inside Higher Ed. In the survey 41 percent in public higher education and 30 percent in private higher education said that Asian-American applicants who are admitted to their institutions generally have higher grades and test scores than other admitted applicants.

OiYan Poon, assistant professor of education at Colorado State University, strongly disputed the case that there is bias against Asian-Americans in admissions. She noted that colleges that are enrolling 15-20 percent classes of Asians (common among elite private institutions in the Northeast) are enrolling 2 to 3 times that Asian-American share of the population. And public universities in California are enrolling even larger shares of Asian-American students.

Poon blamed poor media coverage (she didn't like the Inside Higher Ed survey, for example) for failing to drive home the point that "holistic" admissions, as practiced by elite colleges, is based on more than test scores and grades. Because most people don't understand that, she said, they look at average test scores and see evidence of discrimination that doesn't exist.

She also noted the wide variation among various Asian-American groups, and said that the experiences of third and fourth generation Chinese-Americans are quite far from those of recent immigrants.

Are Asian Parents Encouraging Lists That Are Too Narrow?

The first question after the presentations came from a counselor who asked for help with Asian parents: "My problem is trying to convince my Asian students’ parents that there are more than 20 colleges in the United States."

Panelists agreed that this is a problem (although they said it is not unique to Asian families.)

Tom said that the colleges to which Asian-American parents want their children to enroll in are hyper competitive, so it is difficult for anyone to get in. She said she must stress time and again that, applying to these colleges, top grades and test scores, "are not special," but are "the norm" and no guarantee of admission.

She said she has worked on the issue by requiring her students to have three "likely schools," places that they are likely to be admitted and would like, in addition to their top choices.

In an interview after the panel discussion, Jon Reider of San Francisco University High School, said that he does not see evidence of bias against the Asian-American students who make up about a quarter of those he guides through the college admissions process.

But he said he advises these students to "look for schools with low Asian populations." Reider said that he is a fan of liberal arts colleges (regardless of the ethnicity of his students), but that top liberal arts colleges are many times not on the lists of his top Asian students. So he talks up the option, and those who apply to such colleges tend to do well.

He said that many parents are convinced that the system is rigged against their children. He recently heard from the South Asian father of one of his students who had read about the investigations of alleged bias at Harvard and called to beg Reider to make his son's ethnic background invisible on the application.

One counselor, at an elite private school in the Northeast, who asked not to be identified, said that when advising academically comparable Asian and white students, she assumes that the Asian applicant needs to have some colleges on the list that are less prestigious than those of white students. The counselor is Asian American.

Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington-based private counselor, said that "in 20 years of counseling, I don't think I've ever had an Asian-American family not believe there was discrimination."

He agreed that part of the problem is that so many top Asian-American students are looking at the same, small list of elite research universities. But he also said that he can see the different outcomes for his comparably qualified applicants who are Asian and those who are not. "It's tougher" for the Asian students, he said.

Goodman said he doesn't endorse the idea of trying to de-emphasize one's Asian background, and said that it is unlikely to be effective, anyway. "A student with an Asian name has an Asian name," he said. Applicants "should try to be the best they are."

Yet fear of bias may be discouraging them from doing so. One of the panelists, Andrew Moe, associate dean of admissions at Swarthmore College, described doing mock interviews with a group of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One of the students in the group was an Asian-American woman who was passionate about science and technology, but who alternated between talking about her intellectual excitement for the field and apologizing for that interest.

Moe said he told her that college admissions officers love intellectual passion, and asked why she was apologizing for her interest in STEM. "I don't want to be a stereotype," she said.

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