Monday, October 12, 2009

The Asian Disadvantage in College Admissions

Asians may face tougher college admission process, study finds

The Daily Princetonian

By Melanie Jearlds

Asian applicants may face discrimination in the admission process at many elite universities, according to data from a recent study conducted by sociology professor Thomas Espenshade GS ’72.

According to the data, not all races are considered equal in the college admissions game. Of students applying to private colleges in 1997, African-American applicants with SAT scores of 1150 had the same chances of being accepted as white applicants with 1460s and Asian applicants with perfect 1600s.

The results of the study come three years after Jian Li, a rejected Princeton applicant, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. He alleged in the complaint that he had been discriminated against based on his race when he was denied admission to the University.

Espenshade noted that he did not initially use the word “discrimination” when discussing the results of his study. Though he found a 140-point SAT score discrepancy between accepted white and Asian students, he did not have access to what he called “soft variables,” like extracurriculars and teacher recommendations.

“The data we had is only part of the data that admission deans have access to,” Espenshade said. “If we had access to the full range of info, it could put Asian candidates in a different light. This so-called ‘Asian disadvantage’ does not necessarily mean that Asian applicants are being discriminated against.”

Also, since the study used data from 1997, “it would be desirable to replicate the study on more recent data,” Espenshade said. “It’s kind of hard to know how and to what extent things might have changed in the meantime.”

When asked about University admission policies in light of Li’s complaint, University spokeswoman Cass Cliatt ’96 told The Daily Princetonian in September 2008 that “Princeton does not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin, and our admission policy is in full compliance with Title VI of the [Civil Rights Act of 1964].”

Because his study did not include research done about Princeton’s admission policies, Espenshade said that he had “no empirical basis for having an opinion” about whether or not any possible discrimination occurred at the University.

Espenshade also noted that Li’s complaint does not mark the first time these concerns have been raised.

A look into Harvard’s admission policies in the 1990s showed that, after preferences for legacy students and athletes was removed, there was no discrimination against Asians based on race.

Still, Espenshade said he was surprised that Li decided to file a complaint against only Princeton, as Li was also rejected by Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Penn.

Yet Li’s sentiments are in line with Espenshade’s perceptions of the feelings of the Asian members of the University community. Espenshade explained that his informal conversations with Asian have led him to note the general feeling that they are held to a higher standard in college admissions.

“When Jian Li filed his complaint, it reinforced in their minds that they have to be twice as good as everyone else,” he said.

Espenshade also found in his study that low-income minorities, but not necessarily low-income white students, had an edge in admissions.

Also, according to the results, which will be published in a book to be released in December, the very richest applicants generally had lower acceptance rates than similarly qualified but less wealthy students.

Though Espenshade said he doesn’t know what could account for discrimination in admission policies, he noted that a lot depends on what universities are looking for in the perfect candidate.

“What I have concluded is that every university has in its mind an ideal shape of its entering freshman class,” he said. “If the shape of the applicant pool differs, then there is sculpting that has to be done.”