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Asian American students are much less likely than white applicants to be accepted to highly selective colleges and universities, according to a new working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study, which analyzes enrollment and application data from 2015 to 2021, found that Asian American applicants to highly selective institutions were 28 percent less likely to be admitted than were white students with similar grades, test scores and extracurricular activities. It is the first such data to be collected in nearly a quarter century.

Whether Asian American applicants are disadvantaged at highly selective institutions was a central question in the Supreme Court decision that struck down affirmative action in admissions in June, especially in the case against Harvard University.

Josh Grossman, one of the study’s authors and a data scientist at Stanford University’s Computational Policy Lab, said their findings were “largely unrelated” to the affirmative action case, which he said was less concerned with Asian Americans’ disadvantages vis-à-vis white students than with the perceived advantages of Black and Latino applicants.

Still, Grossman said the data are an important addition to scholarly understanding of recent trends around race and ethnicity in admissions.

“If you consider that Black and Hispanic students have a disadvantage in a world where affirmative action exists and don’t believe that Asian American students have those disadvantages … then Asian American and white students should be admitted at similar rates,” Grossman told Inside Higher Ed. “What we found is that is not the case.”

The research also found significant gaps among Asian American applicants. Those of South Asian descent were 49 percent less likely to be admitted to selective institutions than white applicants, compared to a 17 percent difference between white applicants and those of East Asian descent. Grossman said that was an important finding, considering the homogeneous grouping of Asian American experiences in many discussions of college admissions.

“We haven’t seen any other paper that really treats Asian American students as anything other than this monolithic group, but there is a marked heterogeneity in their experiences,” he said. “If you don’t consider that, you lose an important part of the story.”

Grossman said that legacy admissions, which have come under increased scrutiny since the end of affirmative action, helps explain some of the study’s findings. Legacy preferences have been shown to give wealthy, largely white students more access to highly selective schools, according to a report from Opportunity Insights released last month. The NBER working paper showed that white applicants were much more likely than Asian Americans to have a parent or relative who was a graduate of a highly selective institution, and that East Asian applicants were more likely than South Asians to have the same.