The subject of quotas for Asian American students in higher education is making news as groups of Asian Americans file lawsuits against Harvard and other elite universities.
These stories suggest that universities are discriminating against Asian American students by holding them to a higher standard. They appear to be supported by research that shows that successful Asian American applicants have higher scores than whites and other racial groups on standardized tests such as SAT and ACT. And as a result, private admissions consultants are advising Asian American students on how to “appear less Asian when they apply” in order to boost their chances of admission to elite universities.
These stories perpetuate stereotypes of Asian Americans as high-achieving model minorities. They also suggest that there is an unspoken quota on the number of Asian American students.
As Asian American scholars committed to social justice education, we argue that the issues are far more complex than what these stories suggest.
The Asian diversity
Research in higher education shows that class and ethnicity shape Asian Americans’ post-secondary decisions, opportunities and destinations.
And the model minority stereotype, in fact, begins to breaks down when we disaggregate the data by ethnicity and class.
While Chinese and Asian Indians do have high rates of educational attainment, it is a different story for Southeast Asian Americans.
Southeast Asian Americans have among the lowest educational attainment in the country (eg, 34.3% of Laotian, 38.5% of Cambodian and 39.6% of Hmong over the age of 25 do not have a high school diploma). Compared to East Asians (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) and South Asians (Indian, Pakistani), Southeast Asians are three to five times more likely to drop out of college.
Southeast Asian American students struggle with high rates of poverty and are often trapped in programs for English learners, which fail to prepare them for college.
But the diversity among Asian Americans is lost in the anti-affirmative action rhetoric built on assumptions of an “Asian disadvantage.” And the interests of the most vulnerable Asian Americans are, in fact, not represented by the anti-affirmative action rhetoric.
What do test scores tell us?
The other thing to consider is the admission procedures at colleges and universities.
Most elite colleges and universities, both private and public, use holistic admissions practices. These aim to paint a more complete and complex picture of the students, through the consideration of letters of recommendations, admissions interviews, personal essays, grade point averages, test scores and experiences in a range of both co- and extra-curricular activities.
Race may be one among many considerations in the admissions process.
However, critics charge that these policies unfairly disadvantage Asian Americans as an unspoken quota is imposed on the number of Asian American students admitted to elite universities.
One problem with such a conclusion is an assumption that test scores should be the only factor in determining college admissions and that test scores are an accurate, fair and objective way to assess applicants.
Test scores are not great predictors of success in college. And that is why colleges have holistic admissions policies that allow them to consider a range of data.
Test scores favor the rich
Moreover, a rapidly growing test-prep industry across the country gives a decided advantage to those families with the resources to pay for these courses.
So, the reality is that students do not enter into these tests as equals.
Among Asian Americans, participation in test prep courses appears to vary across class and ethnic groups. One study points to the role of supplementary tutoring, referred to as shadow education because of the way it imitates or shadows the official school curriculum in the success of East Asian American students.
Another study found that Chinese Americans (44.3%) and Korean Americans (52.4%) had the highest rates of taking SAT preparation courses, with Chinese and Koreans from the highest income bracket being most likely to take these preparation courses.
Test scores, in some ways, tell us more about access to resources than about student capacity and learning, and they certainly can’t tell us who students are or can be.
Thus, even in holistic admissions it seems that those with greater resources are at an advantage because they can afford to pay for numerous activities valued by universities and can even afford to hire private admissions counselors to package their children for holistic admissions.
Why we support holistic admissions
While not free from flaws, holistic admissions represent our best bet for capturing who students are and can be. Holistic admissions practices allow colleges to consider students, including Asian Americans, as whole individuals.
While Asian Americans who have lined up with critics of holistic admissions and affirmative action have gotten the most attention in the press, there are many other Asian Americans who support holistic admissions and affirmative action.
As Asian American scholars who support holistic admissions and affirmative action, we recognize that many Asian Americans have been helped by affirmative action policies in higher education and could benefit from affirmative action in the corporate world, where Asian Americans often face what is known as the bamboo ceiling, which impedes their growth within these organizations.
Furthermore, we believe these policies are needed, as they serve to protect the interests of underrepresented Asian American groups’ access to higher education.
And finally, we maintain that racial diversity is central to good education for all students.