Unprecedented Detail on Asian Applicants

November 20, 2007

Advocates for Asian-American students in recent years have repeatedly called for more differentiation among racial and ethnic groups. Classifying third- and fourth-generation Chinese Americans with recent arrivals from Vietnam doesn't make much sense, they have argued, and hides the realities that many Asian Americans are educationally disadvantaged.

The University of California has been among the institutions paying the most attention to this issue and its application for undergraduate admissions currently has 8 categories for Asians to pick from. But under a new policy, those applying next year to enroll in the fall of 2009 will have 23 categories -- a level of specificity that is believed to be unprecedented.

The shift followed a petition drive by students, as well as a desire by university officials to have better data on which Asian subgroups were achieving success -- and which were facing obstacles -- at the university.

"Many of the most disadvantaged groups in terms of parental education level and family income are the groups we don't collect on the application," said Bill Kidder, special assistant to the vice chancellor for student affairs at the university system. The new data will better enable campus officials to compare the graduation rates of different groups and to develop ways to support students who face difficulties.

One thing the university will not be able to do is to use the new information for affirmative action in admissions. California's constitution bars the use of race or ethnicity in public college admissions decisions. But several experts said that the approach taken by the university system could be influential elsewhere. At many colleges, Asian Americans as a group are no longer "underrepresented," but more attention to subgroups would reflect the way many categories are indeed largely invisible at elite colleges and universities -- even as total Asian-American enrollments grow. A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office in July highlighted the huge gaps in educational attainment and economic success among various Asian subgroups.

Currently, University of California admissions applications (and the data that come from them) have eight categories for Asians Americans: Chinese, East Indian/Pakistani, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Pacific Islander, Vietnamese and other Asian.

The new system will have groups of categories for Asian Americans and for Pacific Islanders. For the former, the categories woulds be: Chinese (except Taiwanese), Taiwanese, Asian Indian, Pakistani, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Hmong, Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Malaysian, Sri Lankan and other Asian. For the latter, the categories will be Native Hawaiian, Guamanian/Chamorro, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian and other Pacific Islander.

The University of California application currently offers Latinos the chance to designate themselves as Mexican-Americans or other Latinos. Most in the "other" category are from families who migrated from Central America. (In many cases, national data for Latinos would include breakdowns for those whose families are from Puerto Rico or Cuba, with the same rationale being offered in California for looking in detail at different groups. In California, however, enrollments are minimal from those groups.)

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he had never heard of another college application with that level of detail about Asian groups .While few states have California's diversity of Asian populations, Nassirian said that many are seeing population growth from different Asian groups and that there is "much more variability" among them than within other racial groupings. "This could be a harbinger for other states that have significant populations of Asian Americans."

Ted Y. Mashima, president of the Asian and Pacific Island American Scholarship Fund, said he had not studied the new California proposal, but was impressed with the ideas behind it. "When people think of Asian Americans, they think of high achieving, college-bound students, excellent in math and science," he said.

While that is true for some, Mashima said, "the enormity of the differences between one country from another is pretty dramatic."

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