Asian American College Applicants are Victims of False Advertising, Not Discrimination

A group of Asian Americans are filing a lawsuit against Harvard, claiming the university discriminated against Asian American applicants. The plaintiffs allege that Harvard set racial quotas, forcing Asian Americans to score higher than other racial groups to be considered equally competitive. Many are not sympathetic to the Asian American plaintiffs. Some think that they are simply disillusioned to think that they deserved better. Others think that they are being used to make a case against affirmative action.

The plaintiffs’ discrimination claims are difficult to prove when colleges do not release admissions data. The lawsuit makes one thing clear, however. Colleges need to be more transparent about how they grant admissions. Colleges are perpetuating a false image of meritocracy when the reality of college admissions is more complicated.

Whether Asian-Americans are held to a higher standard than other racial groups is difficult to show. The answer could be revealed simply by looking at data of applicant qualifications and their admission results, but college admission data is opaque. Colleges refuse to release data that would confirm many people’s suspicions that 1) Asians are more qualified than other racial groups, including whites, and 2) many extremely qualified Asian Americans are not getting in because colleges have placed an unofficial cap on the number/percentage of Asian American that can be admitted for the sake of diversity.

Data from Collegeboard shows that Asians score highest on standardized testing compared to other racial groups including the SATs and APs. A study from Princeton that analyzed admission results of 9000 applicants to elite colleges also revealed that Asians need to score higher in order to get the same chance at admission compared to other racial groups. Possibly the most compelling evidence that Asians are more qualified than other races is that schools with relatively race-blind admission policies, focusing on meritocracy, see an overrepresentation of Asian students. Caltech or UC schools are prime examples of this. But even these schools don’t have truly race-blind admissions, and in the case of UC schools, find ways to circumvent the legal requirement to be race-blind. So, it is still unclear exactly what percentage of Asian students would be admitted if admissions were truly race blind, although some people predict that it would be more than twice the current percentage.

Finding evidence that Asian Americans are held to higher standards in college admissions is made even more difficult because of  “holistic admissions.” Colleges nowadays  are not simply looking for the student with the best numbers. Instead, colleges claim that they assess the applicant holistically, paying attention to applicants’ lives outside the classroom.

This sounds all good and well, except that, traditionally, holistic assessment has been a convenient artifice for colleges to cut down on the admissions of high achieving minorities while rewarding WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). In fact, the emphasis on a holistic assessment of the applicant started as a way to disadvantage Jewish applicants who were acing the SATs. Now, in the 21st century, holistic admissions have become a means to diffuse Asian American complaints of unfairness.

Colleges, like Harvard, are able to dismiss the complaints of Asian Americans by claiming that while a lot of Asian Americans excel in testing, they aren’t as “qualified” as they think they are because they lag in the “soft factors.” They suggest that Asian Americans are misguided and haughty in thinking that just because they are good students, they deserve to get admitted. Commentators pedantically told the plaintiffs that they were excellent students but undesirable candidates given their obsession with colleges and scores.

The premature judgement that the Asian American plaintiffs are simply naive in thinking they deserved admissions has its basis on the perennial stereotype against Asians that we are just faceless, rote-memorization nerds who’ve mastered testing but lack all of the necessary traits of a desirable candidate such as creativity, integrity, compassion, and the motivation to make a difference in the world, etc.

Asians are acutely aware that they are seen as testing machines. Hence, many Asian Americans go to extra lengths to avoid portraying themselves as the stereotypical Asian applicant by also excelling in soft factors. Alas, this is the dilemma of the Asian American applicant. In order to be a strong applicant, they must do their best in academics, but this paints them as one of an army of high-achieving clones. If they also master the soft factors, now they risk coming off as a perfectionist, college-obsessed Asian, another stereotype that uniquely affects Asians.

Deciding whether the plaintiffs in the Harvard case are right and Asian Americans are held to a higher standard remains controversial because we simply don’t want to forgo the ideal of meritocracy in college admissions. Among those who end up at their top choice schools, like current Stanford students (or most of them, I hope), we like to think of admissions officers as judicious judges who make no mistakes. Claims that the admission process is harsher or easier on some applicants shakes the foundation on which we tell ourselves that we deserve to be here.

But the illusion of meritocracy must be shattered, and the taboo, eliminated. College admissions has never been meritocratic. When admission committees review applications, they are not merely looking for the most qualified individuals, even in the holistic sense. They also pay attention to forming a cohort of students who will make up a class. A class that consists of the most qualified students is not ideal, for it abandons ideals of diversity, whether it be the diversity of race, nationality, socioeconomic background, talent, or interest. Pure meritocracy also doesn’t acknowledge the existence of systemic injustices or personal circumstances that may have affected the applicant.

A conflict between diversity and pure meritocracy is inescapable. And it should be considered a good thing that meritocracy is sometimes sacrificed for the sake of diversity or fairness. This is why the Asian American plaintiffs who sued Harvard should not prevail in proving discrimination. However, Harvard is not absolved from blame. The plaintiffs were victims of false advertisement. Colleges have advertised themselves as being meritocratic for far too long. Even though colleges emphasize their commitment to diversity, they have used rhetoric that downplays the fact that they often forgo meritocratic ideals completely for the interest of diversity. They frequently declare that they are looking for some of the world’s most motivated, innovative high school students without caring to include disclaimers that even the most qualified student’s admission is contingent on external circumstances.

Colleges actively maintain the myth of meritocracy by refusing to release stats on admissions aside from very minimal demographic information. Harvard, for example, argues that information on race and admission results constitutes essential operational data that in the hands of other universities could put them at a comparative disadvantage. As the plaintiffs mock, Harvard needs to stop treating its admission stats as if they were Coca-Cola’s secret recipe and release them so that all applicants know their chances.

The only way to actually verify the truth behind college admissions and race would be to analyze official data. Hence, skeptics and friends of the Asian American plaintiffs alike have a reason to support the lawsuit and request that there be greater transparency in college admissions data.

Even if it is confirmed that Asian Americans are held to a higher standard, it cannot hurt to accept that meritocracy is not, and should not be, the exclusive priority of colleges. But for this to happen, we will need to change how we talk about college admissions and how colleges portray admissions. Maybe the first step for us would be to discontinue the rhetoric of desert when discussing college admissions. The next time you congratulate someone on their college acceptance, I advise that we skip the usual, “you deserved it!” and replace it with “good for you for fitting well with Stanford’s Class of 2023!”


Sun Woo Lee

Photo: An English class for Asian American ILGWU members of Local 23-25, December 15, 1968, Collection: International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985)

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