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The debate over affirmative action has been framed in part (by opponents of affirmative action) as a matter of protecting the rights of Asian Americans. These students are outperforming other groups on the SATs and ACT and would earn many more spots at top colleges if admissions focused on academics, the argument goes. After all, the enrollment of Asian American students has become stagnant at many of the leading colleges and universities (although it is far more than their share of the U.S. population). And the admit rate for Asian American students is lower than for other groups at these colleges.

But what if bias doesn't explain those realities?

A report being released today by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce finds no "strong evidence" of discrimination against Asian American applicants in admissions to the 91 most selective colleges.

The report says:

  • The share of Asian American students has been "consistent" with the share of Asian American applicants who are "highly qualified."
  • While the Asian American admit rate is indeed lower than the rates of other groups at selective college, "they are also much more likely to apply to these colleges, regardless of their test scores."
  • "Even if standardized test scores were the only factor considered in admissions, the Asian American share of enrollment at the most selective colleges would increase by no more than 2 percentage points."

The study is based in part on simulations of admissions decisions.

"We evaluated how enrollments would change if colleges considered only test scores in their admissions processes. Test-only admissions would increase the Asian American enrollment share at the most selective colleges from 12 percent to 14 percent," the report says,

"Why wouldn’t the percentage of Asian American students increase more?" the report asks. "Asian American students are not monolithic. They are diverse in background, interests, accomplishments, and test scores. Nearly half of Asian American college students attend open-access institutions, and 40 percent of Asian American college students have standardized test scores that are below average."

“If we used test-based merit as the singular admissions requirement, the gain for Asian American applicants would be marginal,” said the study's lead author, Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce. “But on the flip side, 21 percent of Asian American applicants who were previously admitted would no longer qualify.”

The research arrives as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to hear an appeal of a lawsuit against Harvard University over its affirmative action programs. That suit -- rejected in court thus far -- is based on the idea that Harvard uses affirmative action to discriminate against Asian applicants.

Details of the Report

How do the researchers attempt to prove their points?

"Looking at the 91 most selective colleges, there is little year-to-year change in enrollment share for Asian American students," the report says. "Critics argue that such stability is suspect, because applicant pools change every year. To the contrary, the applicant pool is quite stable when considering a measure that affirmative action critics like to employ: test scores."

The report continues, "Generally, only about 4 to 6 percent of students who take the SAT score above 1350 (out of 1600). Over the past two decades, the most selective 91 colleges have accounted for 6 to 8 percent of all four-year college enrollment, so enough students generally score above 1350 to fill a majority of seats at these colleges. The share of these top scores held by Asian American and Pacific Islander college students has been remarkably consistent: around 12 percent in 2000, 2008, and 2012. In 2016, Asian American and Pacific Islander college students held 15 percent of these scores -- and their share of seats at the most selective colleges increased commensurately."

With regard to the higher rejection rates of Asian students, the report says that among students who scored 1300 or above on the SAT (the top quartile of test scores among applicants to selective colleges), 65 percent of Asian American students applied to one of the 91 most selective colleges in the country. In contrast, only 50 percent of non-Asian students did so. Among students who scored below 1300, 12 percent of Asian American students applied to one of the most selective colleges, but only 5 percent of non-Asian American students did so.

Then the researchers did their SAT-admissions simulations.

"To illustrate their claim that the Asian American share of enrollment is too low, affirmative action opponents point to selective colleges, as well as secondary schools, that do not have race-conscious admissions and end up with large shares of Asian American students. They imply that if colleges had 'fair' admissions processes that did not consider race at all, Asian American students would gain a great deal more seats," the report says. "The implicit argument of affirmative action opponents is that if all selective colleges were 'fair' and considered only a race-blind measure like test scores," Asian enrollments would go up.

The simulation found that if colleges considered only SAT scores, "Asian American enrollment still would not change much."

The researchers determined that of the 4.1 million students who were high school freshmen in 2009, 120,000 attended one of the 91 most selective colleges.

"When ranking everyone from this freshman class who applied to one of the most selective colleges by their test scores alone, and admitting those with the highest 120,000 scores (randomly selecting students to resolve ties), there are a few notable characteristics of the hypothetical class at the most selective colleges when compared to the actual class of students," the report says.

The two-percentage-point difference was only one of the findings.

"Our thought experiment also found that under a test-only admissions system, the median SAT scores for accepted students would increase by 70 points for Asian Americans and 90 points for non-Asian Americans, suggesting that any so-called Asian penalty is closer to 20 points than 140 points," the report says.

The report stresses that the thought experiment with admitting a hypothetical class only based on test scores was just that, not a way that colleges should act.

"While moving to a test-only admissions process might look like a way to eliminate any bias against Asian Americans -- even a test-score penalty of 20 points -- colleges have a competing goal in mind: to assemble a class with multifaceted accomplishments that go beyond test-taking skills," the report says. "The purpose of holistic admissions is to consider the entire student, assessing his or her achievements within the context of individual experience and the needs of the college. College officials consider high school [grade point average], class rank, and test scores, but they also weigh talents, interests, and background when forming a new class. Colleges are not simply considering numbers, but people."

Critics of Affirmative Action

What do critics of affirmative action make of the findings?

Swann Lee, a spokeswoman for the Asian American Coalition for Education, which opposes affirmative action, dismissed them as irrelevant.

"The issue is that Asian American applicants are discriminated against based on race among applicants of similar qualifications," she said. "They have a much lower rate of being admitted than similarly qualified applicants of other races. The issue was never whether standardized tests should be the only admission standard."

The fact remains, she said, that Asian American admit rates are lower than those of other students.

The study mentions "irrelevant things" that give the impression "that the study is ill informed about what the issues really are," she said.

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