DENVER – Don’t check the box.
It’s the advice that’s given to Asian-American students by friends, family members, guidance counselors, even teachers, in the college application process. “The box” in question (actually more of a circle these days ) refers to the selection of “Asian” when college applications ask students how they identify themselves.
At a session on the topic here at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting – a convention that brings together high school counselors with college admission directors and others involved in the field – almost all the hands in the room shot up when panelists asked the audience if they thought Asian-American students were held to a higher standard in the college admissions process.
Irrespective of whether colleges consciously or unconsciously discriminate against Asian-American students in the admissions process – a topic that has been the subject of copious research – the pervasive problem, said panelists here, is that many Asian-American students believe the institutions do, potentially causing them to approach high school differently than they might have otherwise or dissemble about their identity on the actual applications.
Panelists said myriad forces contribute to the perception of bias in college admissions, including intense pressure for a relatively small number of seats at a small set of institutions (and the need to explain rejections to competitive peers); an actual history of bias against minorities in general and Asians in particular; and a “disproportionate” share of Asian-American students who are qualified for admission at elite institutions.
But the ultimate culprit, they said, is that most people simply do not understand the complicated admissions process employed by elite institutions – the “holistic” review – that factors in more than test scores and grades. “Nobody is talking about what happens in admissions, and that just fuels the problem,” said Jesse Washington, a reporter with the Associated Press whose December, 2011 story  on Asian-Americans and admissions touched a nerve in the community among admissions directors and Asian-American families when it reported that several Asian-American students at Ivy League universities declined to identify as such in the application process. “Nobody will talk, and that just makes people more paranoid.”
As a result Asian students express feeling like they’re being compared solely with one another or that they’re being compared against an “Asian stereotype” – high-achieving, goal-oriented, academically focused students with a preference for science and math fields.
While the conversation about bias in admissions occupies a prominent place in higher education discussions, it pertains to only a small percentage of all universities and a small percentage of all Asian-American students. The largest segment of Asian-American college students, like college students in general, attends public two-year institutions.
But several factors contribute to a strong college-going culture in certain Asian-American communities, particularly those hailing from China, Japan, Korea, and India.
First, Asian immigration to the United States was effectively barred for 31 years from 1934 until 1965. Then, when it was opened, immigration tended to favor white-collar families. The combination of a “recent immigrant” ethos with that of the middle class tended to drive a “fetishization of higher education” among that group, said Randolf Arguelles, director of Elite Education of San Francisco, a test-prep and admissions counseling company that serves a large number of Asian-American students. The children of that wave of immigration are now in the college-application age bracket.
Such groups, for cultural reasons, also tend to value rankings, narrowing their focus to an upper echelon of American higher education that includes flagship public universities in California, New York, Texas, and Illinois, and Ivy League and other elite private research universities such as Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and the Massachusetts and California institutes of Technology. (Elite liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, often don’t have the same draw.)
Research shows that Asian-American students meet some of the qualifications for prestigious universities – particularly grades and test scores – at rates that far exceeds their share of the population. Asian students' scores on the SAT this past year  were about 150 points higher than the average. That number also masks deep differences in performance among sub-populations, with Chinese-, Japanese-, Korean-, and Indian-American students significantly outperforming groups such as Cambodian- and Hmong-American students. Asian Americans admitted to elite institutions tend to have higher test scores than their non-Asian counterparts. Washington said students often think that because they have higher test scores and grades, they are “better qualified” candidates.
For such reasons, Asian students believe they are being compared against one another, rather than the general population, leading to the charge of bias. If such students were compared to the population as a whole rather than each other, they say, more would be admitted.
Other students argue that because they are Asian, they are expected to fit a certain mold that includes high test scores and aptitude in math and science. They argue that Asian-American students who don’t fit this paradigm – such as those who have lower test scores but more extracurricular activities – are penalized in the admissions process, while other students of other races and ethnicities are not.
College and university admissions offices reject both charges. But because of this perceived bias, Washington found in reporting his story that a large number of Asian-American students applying to elite schools who had one non-Asian parent and a “non-Asian-sounding” name often did not check the box. Even some with “Asian” names decided not to check the box in protest.
Merit vs. Admissions
Multiple admissions counselors here could relay stories of an Asian-American student with a 4.0 GPA, a perfect SAT score, and several AP classes under their belt who got turned away from the Ivy League institution of their (or their parents’) dreams.
Part of the problem, panelists said, is a misunderstanding among students and their parents about what “merit” means in the application process. In most other countries, students are granted admissions to prestigious universities based on performance on certain exams. Many Asian families think that should be enough, panelists said.
But U.S. colleges and universities mean something else when they talk about “merit,” a consideration that incorporates extracurricular activity, intellectual curiosity, and the circumstances of their education.
Even in states where institutions are legally barred from considering race in the admissions process, colleges still face questions of anti-Asian bias.
Greg Dubrow, director of research and policy analysis in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of California at Berkeley – where Asian-American students make up 45 percent of the undergraduate population but only 14 percent of the state’s population – said he’s confident that his institution does not discriminate against Asian-American students. But the institution still faces the charge. When the university dropped the SAT subject tests, Asian-American families said it would hurt their admissions chances  while advantaging white students.
California has had a constitutional amendment in place since 1996 that prohibits schools from using race as a factor in college admissions. That amendment has been replicated in several other states including Michigan, Washington, and Nebraska.
The University of California system heavily weighs where a student comes from in considering their application, typically weighing a student's performance against other students with similar backgrounds. Dubrow said that if the process is biased against anyone, it harms students at high-performing schools who do not perform at the very top. Sometimes that breaks along racial lines; other times it does not. “If there’s an issue, it’s because we’re trying to make sure a student from a lower-resource school has the same opportunities,” Dubrow said.
Last year the university turned away about 3,400 applicants who had 4.0 grade point averages.
Panelists at NACAC said a major problem is that the application process is Byzantine and secretive, and that institutions aren’t forthright about what they consider. “Admission is based on achievement and promise,” reads the Harvard  admissions website. “We are looking for the best and the brightest students who will take advantage of the one-of-a-kind opportunity available here,” says Yale’s .
Panelists said there’s a lack of trust in the public about the way colleges make admissions decisions, driven largely by past injustices and the competition for seats. “A real question is ‘Do we trust these colleges to create the best classes?’ ” Washington said. Better communication, panelists said, could help improve that view.
The issue is particularly salient this week, with the Supreme Court considering a case that could bar the use of race as a factor in college admissions decisions. In that case a white woman said she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin because of her race. The university said race played no part in her admission decision and that even under a plan where race was not considered she still would not have been admitted.
Washington said that when he was writing his story on Asian-American admissions, the admissions offices at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton did not return his inquiries. Washington, Arguelles, and others said colleges need to rethink how they talk about the admissions process with these students.
“College matters a lot to these kids,” said Arun Ponnusamy, a partner and college counselor with Collegewise in Chicago and another member of the panel. “I think colleges need to radically rethink how they talk about how they make these decisions.”