When Asian Students Don't Get Into Their First-Choice College

They end up doing just as well, study says.

August 31, 2020
(Drazen/Getty Images)

What if Asian Americans' getting into their first choice for college didn't matter that much?

That's the thesis behind new research published Monday in the journal Educational Researcher. And the research is particularly timely given the Justice Department's recent finding that Yale University discriminates against Asian (and white) applicants -- a charge Yale denies. Not to mention that a federal appeals court is currently considering an appeal of a decision finding that Harvard University did not discriminate against Asians in admissions.

The research was designed to evaluate what experiences -- educational and otherwise -- Asian Americans have when they don't get into their first-choice college. The answer will not surprise generations of Harvard rejects: they generally do well at the institutions they attend.

“Over all, our findings countered the claims made by the two groups that served as the impetus of the Justice Department’s investigation,” said study co-author Mike Hoa Nguyen, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Denver. “We found that only small differences, if any, exist between the self-reported outcomes of Asian American students who were admitted to and attending their first-choice university and those students who were not.”

His co-authors are Connie Y. Chang, Victoria Kim, Rose Ann E. Gutierrez, Annie Le and Robert T. Teranishi at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Denis Dumas of Denver.

The researchers assessed 27 student outcome measures spread across six general categories. The categories included academic performance and perception of academic abilities; satisfaction with college; self-confidence and self-esteem; level of student involvement; willingness and ability to contribute to society; and diversity of racial interactions. As part of the study, the researchers analyzed longitudinal data from two national surveys administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA: the 2012 Freshman Survey and the 2016 College Senior Survey. The study included 1,023 students who self-identified as Asian American and were in the 2012 and the 2016 surveys.

On 23 of the 27 outcome measures, the researchers found no difference between the two groups of students, Asian students who attended their first-choice college and those who did not.

The study controlled for students’ SAT score, high school grade point average, gender and first-generation college status. On one other measure -- “time spent participating in student clubs or groups” -- students not accepted by their first-choice institution reported higher levels of involvement than their peers. The remaining three outcome measures showed marginally higher outcomes for students at their first-choice university, with a very small difference between the two groups.

In the “academic performance and perception of academic abilities” category, only one of the 11 measures -- “time spent studying and doing homework” -- showed a difference between the two groups, with students at their first-choice institution indicating more time on schoolwork. At the same time, the two groups reported similar levels of academic performance and perception of their academic ability.

In the “satisfaction with college” category, students at their first-choice university scored higher on one measure -- overall satisfaction with the college experience -- than their peers. On the other measure in the category-- “satisfaction with coursework” -- there was no difference between the two groups.

Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, which sued Harvard over its policies, said, "There are dozens of conflicting studies about the harms or benefits of race-based affirmative action. Add this one to the pile. The mission of SFFA is simple: We believe a student's race should not be a factor in college admissions. Nearly 75 percent of Americans agree with us."

Share Article

Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

Back to Top