Asians: Too Smart for Their Own Good?

Carolyn Chen, New York Times, December 19, 2012

At the end of this month, high school seniors will submit their college applications and begin waiting to hear where they will spend the next four years of their lives. More than they might realize, the outcome will depend on race. If you are Asian, your chances of getting into the most selective colleges and universities will almost certainly be lower than if you are white.

Asian-Americans constitute 5.6 percent of the nation’s population but 12 to 18 percent of the student body at Ivy League schools. But if judged on their merits—grades, test scores, academic honors and extracurricular activities—Asian-Americans are underrepresented at these schools. Consider that Asians make up anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of the student population at top public high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in New York City, Lowell in San Francisco and Thomas Jefferson in Alexandria, Va., where admissions are largely based on exams and grades.

In a 2009 study of more than 9,000 students who applied to selective universities, the sociologists Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford found that white students were three times more likely to be admitted than Asians with the same academic record.

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{snip} Yale’s student population is 58 percent white and 18 percent Asian. Would it be such a calamity if those numbers were reversed?

As the journalist Daniel Golden revealed in his 2006 book ”The Price of Admission,” far more attention has been devoted to race-conscious affirmative action at public universities (which the Supreme Court has scaled back and might soon eliminate altogether) than to the special preferences elite universities afford to the children of (overwhelmingly white) donors and alumni.

For middle-class and affluent whites, overachieving Asian-Americans pose thorny questions about privilege and power, merit and opportunity. Some white parents have reportedly shied away from selective public schools that have become “too Asian,” fearing that their children will be outmatched. {snip]

At highly selective colleges, the quotas are implicit, but very real. So are the psychological consequences. At Northwestern, Asian-American students tell me that they feel ashamed of their identity—that they feel viewed as a faceless bunch of geeks and virtuosos. When they succeed, their peers chalk it up to “being Asian.” They are too smart and hard-working for their own good.

Since the 1965 overhaul of immigration law, the United States has lured millions of highly educated, ambitious immigrants from places like Taiwan, South Korea and India. We welcomed these immigrants precisely because they outperformed and overachieved. Yet now we are stigmatizing their children for inheriting their parents’ work ethic and faith in a good education. How self-defeating.

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Some educators, parents and students worry that if admissions are based purely on academic merit, selective universities will be dominated by whites and Asians and admit few blacks and Latinos, as a result of socioeconomic factors and an enduring test-score gap. We still need affirmative action for underrepresented groups, including blacks, Latinos, American Indians and Southeast Asian Americans and low-income students of all backgrounds.

But for white and Asian middle- and upper-income kids, the playing field should be equal. {snip}

We want to fill our top universities with students of exceptional and wide-ranging talent, not just stellar test takers. But what worries me is the application of criteria like “individuality” and “uniqueness,” subjectively and unfairly, to the detriment of Asians, as happened to Jewish applicants in the past. {snip}

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