"Rachel, for an Asian, has many friends."
That's the kind of line that apparently is turning up more and more in letters of recommendation on behalf of Asian American applicants to top colleges, according to experts on a panel called "Too Asian?" at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
When the recommendation line was cited as the kind of bias -- even perhaps well intentioned bias -- that pervades the admissions process, many in the audience at first seemed angry that in 2006 people would reference race in that way. But when it came time for audience comments, one high school counselor said that counselors feel they have no choice but to mention students' Asian status and to try to make it seem like their Asian students are different from other Asian students.
"We make those comparisons because we feel it's the only way we can get through and get our students looked at," said the counselor, to knowing nods from others in the audience.
Many Asian students and their families have for years believed that quotas or bias hinder their chances at top Ivy or California universities. But to listen to panelists -- and members of a standing room only audience -- the intensity of concern has grown, as has mistrust of the system.
In the discussion at the NACAC meeting, participants tried to talk frankly about Asian students' perceptions and colleges' perception of Asians -- with several people admitting that they were simultaneously denouncing stereotypes and saying that some of them had at least partial truth that colleges and high schools need to confront.
Admissions officers, while defending the overall integrity of the system, admitted that bias is a real problem. And advocates for Asian students admitted that they are challenged by the many Asian families who want to consider only a subset of institutions.
Many counselors -- during and after the session -- said that they have little doubt that when applying for undergraduate admission to research universities, white applicants are getting admitted with lower test scores and grades than Asian applicants are. One high school guidance counselor told the panel of experts that a sign of the distrust of the system is that he is increasingly asked by Asian American students if they would be better off applying to college if they declined to check the race/ethnicity box on the applications.
Jon Reider, a counselor at University High School, in San Francisco, urged the questioner to encourage students to continue to check the box, and he questioned whether leaving the box would do much good. "If your name is Wong....." he said to laughter. But he also noted that one of the many ways Asian Americans today don't fit stereotypes is in their names. The Asian American woman on the panel -- and admissions official at Colorado College -- was named Rachel Cederberg.
The prompt for the discussion was an article that ran last year in The Wall Street Journal about "the new white flight." The article reported that white families were leaving some nice suburbs with great public schools -- or sending their children to private schools -- as districts became "too Asian," apparently meaning districts where after-school academic programs are more popular than soccer. While the school districts about which the article was written have criticized the piece, many at the NACAC meeting said that the attitudes quoted in the article were real -- and were playing a big impact in college admissions.
Reider said he thought the article and the question of "Too Asian?" that it posed was "shameful" and said that he was "embarrassed" as an American that such a piece would appear today. He asked whether anyone would think of publishing an article called "Too Latino?" and compared the bias to the kind of bigotry that for decades limited the enrollment of Jewish students at top private universities. "This is a racist question," he said.
He also said that the bias is real -- and cited his experience in his previous job as part of the admissions office at Stanford University. There, he said, the office did a study some years ago in which it compared Asian and white applicants with the same overall academic and leadership rankings. The study was only of "unhooked kids," meaning those with no extra help for being an alumni child or an athlete. The study found that comparably qualified white applicants were "significantly" more likely to be admitted than their Asian counterparts.
Stanford's admissions office responded with some serious self-reflection, he said, and officials now spend some time each year studying different kinds of bias -- like letters that compare Asian applicants to other Asians -- in an attempt to weed out any unfair judgments. With bias removed, he said, "there's no way that a school or college can be considered too Asian."
At the same time, he and others said that part of the problem in admissions today is created by Asian applicants -- and especially their parents -- who tend to accept only certain colleges as legitimate options.
Colorado College, where Cederberg now works, has an Asian population under 10 percent -- a figure that is quite typical for liberal arts colleges. Asian students are considered to add to diversity to the college and she has the full support of the college in recruiting them, she said.
Based on working with institutions where Asian enrollment exceed 25 percent -- something that is increasingly common at elite publics in California and top universities elsewhere -- she said she hears lots of talk about admissions officers who complain about "yet another Asian student who wants to major in math and science and who plays the violin" or people who say "I don't want another boring Asian."
She said she wishes more Asian students would look at liberal arts colleges. A broader problem, several speakers said, was an emphasis on just a few kinds of institutions.
Mike White, principal of Lynbrook High School, in one of the districts The Wall Street Journal wrote about, said that he has a very tough time persuading Asian students to look at the California State University campuses, including nearby San Jose State University, which has many academic programs in areas his students want to study.
If they don't get into the University of California campus of choice or Stanford, he said, many prefer to enroll at a community college and transfer to a UC campus rather than attending a Cal State campus. White stressed that he didn't mean to be critical of community colleges, but that it struck him that his students were ignoring institutions that were a good match -- just because the institutions didn't have a perceived level of prestige.
Reider described an exercise he does for Asian parents in which he tells them about two institutions. At one, he describes walking through a beautify campus, meeting a president who knows all the students by name, seeing labs that are first rate, and learning that science students are admitted to top graduate and professional programs, based in part on their original research. At the other institution, he describes how he meets a smart science student frustrated that he can't get any work done because of the loud music down the hall. When Reider walks down the hall, a student blaring music tells him it's a party school.
After he describes the two campuses, he says he tells the parents "you'd want your kids at the first school, right?" They agree. Then he tells them that the first institution was Whitman College (although he quickly adds that it could have been a few dozen other liberal arts colleges) and the second institution was Harvard University. And then, he said, the parents all say that they were wrong when they answered the question the first time, and they still want their kids at Harvard.