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How Elite U.S. Colleges Are Keeping the Asian Invasion at Bay

Asian overachievers may be rejected by Harvard in droves because top U.S. schools 'sculpt' the class with race and gender quotas in mind.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   15-06-2015
Harvard's most famous basketball alum, economics graduate Jeremy Lin is one of the few Asian Americans in NBA history.
Last month, when coding genius Pooja Chandrashekhar, the daughter of two Virginia-based engineers, aced the admissions test and got into 14 U.S. schools — including all eight Ivies — and was choosing between Stanford and Harvard, she made headlines in India, but her star turn was treated with remarkable sangfroid in the American media.

Chandrashekar, who is now studying courses geared towards medicine and bioengineering at Harvard, has a 4.57 grade-point average. She scored a 2390 (out of 2400) on the SAT, aced all 13 of her Advance Placement exams and developed a mobile app that tests speech patterns to predict if a person has Parkinson’s disease. She founded ProjectCSGIRLS, a nonprofit that inspires girls to code and participate in STEM programs — all before her 18th birthday.

Triumphal Narrative

Chandrashekar is part of a triumphal Indian American narrative, but are brilliant Asian over achievers beginning to grate in the upper echelons of the American educational system?

Asian American success is commonly taken to endorse the American Dream. Still, a hint of racial panic always follows the consideration of Asians, and all the more so as Americans get "Bangalored" and China becomes the banker controlling America's snowballing debt.

Is there an undercurrent of panic about Asian Americans collectively dominating in elite high schools and universities? Are elite U.S. colleges putting subtle systems in place to keep the "Asian invasion" at bay?

"Nowadays nobody on an admissions committee would dare use the term racial 'quotas,' but racial stereotyping is alive and well," Sara Harberson, a former Ivy League admissions dean writes in the Los Angeles Times. "And although colleges would never admit students based on 'quotas,' they fearlessly will 'sculpt' the class with race and gender percentages in mind."

Haberson is privy to the delicate, arcane workings of elite college admissions as she was the former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the former dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College.

Veil of Holistic Admissions adds Subjectivity to Decisions

"Has holistic admissions become a guise for allowing cultural and even racial biases to dictate the admissions process? To some degree, yes," states Haberson.

If the American college application system was built solely around test scores and grades, what you would get is a classroom of overwhelmingly similar high test scorers. But many elite colleges use "holistic admission" standards, which allows a college to factor in a student's background, extracurricular involvement, skills diversity, letters of recommendation, and many other criteria.

Unfortunately, race can falls into one of the "many other criteria" and in some cases, Harberson argues, the consideration of race will work against Asian students.

"There's an expectation that Asian Americans will be the highest test scorers and at the top of their class; anything less can become an easy reason for a denial. Yet even when Asian American students meet this high threshold, they may be destined for the wait list or outright denial because they don't stand out among the other high-achieving students in their cohort. The most exceptional academic applicants may be seen as the least unique, and so admissions officers are rarely moved to fight for them," says Harberson.

She points out that holistic admissions can allow for "a gray zone of bias at elite institutions" working against Asian Americans.

No Proverbial Golden Ticket

Asian students who hit all the listed benchmarks are also turned away from elite U.S. colleges because they don't have a "tag" associated with their application — what Harberson calls "the proverbial golden ticket."

"Asian Americans are rarely children of alumni at the Ivies. There aren't as many recruited athletes coming from the Asian American applicant pool. Nor are they typically earmarked as "actual" or "potential" donors. They simply don't have long-standing connections to these institutions," says Haberson.

In contrast, students with tags may be "recruited athletes, children of alumni, children of donors or potential donors, or students who are connected to the well connected."

Harberson's candid comments come in the middle of a heated controversy about the use of race in elite college admissions. A coalition of over 60 Chinese, Indian, Korean and Pakistani organizations have filed a complaint against Harvard University with the US Education Department for "systemic and continuous discrimination" against Asian Americans by setting higher admission standards for them.

In effect, it's a kind of restrictive quota system, but Harvard denies the charge, saying its "holistic" admissions process looks at applicants' "extracurricular activities and leadership qualities".

Still, there appears to be subtle injustice at work against Asian American students. To get into elitist and exclusive Harvard, they need SAT scores that are about 140 points higher than those of their white peers. The lawsuit filed in May on behalf of Asian applicants offers strong evidence that Harvard University engages in racial “balancing.”

Clearly, elite institutions like Harvard use “holistic” criteria as a way to apply different standards to different applicant groups — e.g., play down objective test scores for Asians, play up subjective recommendation letters for blacks and Hispanics.

The lawsuit accuses Harvard and other elite institutions of holding Asians to far higher standards than other applicants, a practice used to limit the number of Jewish students at Ivy League schools in the first half of the 20th century.

Asians Score Highest in GMAT

Here are some plain facts: Indian and Chinese students, of American or indigenous origin, fare better in entrance exams, especially for business schools. The gap between Indian, Chinese and U.S. students on the math portion of the GMAT has widened. Last year the mean raw score for students in the Asian-Pacific region on that section was 45, above the global mean of 38 and the U.S. mean of 33, according to GMAC data.

"That's causing a big problem for America's prospective MBAs," reports The Wall Street Journal. "Asia-Pacific students have shown a mastery of the quantitative portion of the four-part GMAT. That has skewed mean test scores upward, and vexed US students, whose results are looking increasingly poor in comparison. In response, admissions officers at US schools are seeking new ways of measurement, to make US students look better."
 

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London. 
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