For Asian Americans, a Changing Landscape on College Admissions

Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2015

Inside a windowless classroom at an Arcadia tutoring center, parents crammed into child-sized desks and dug through their pockets and purses for pens as Ann Lee launches a PowerPoint presentation.

Her primer on college admissions begins with the basics: application deadlines, the relative virtues of the SAT versus the ACT and how many Advanced Placement tests to take.

Then she eases into a potentially incendiary topic–one that many counselors like her have learned they cannot avoid.

“Let’s talk about Asians,” she says.

Lee’s next slide shows three columns of numbers from a Princeton University study that tried to measure how race and ethnicity affect admissions by using SAT scores as a benchmark. It uses the term “bonus” to describe how many extra SAT points an applicant’s race is worth. She points to the first column.

African Americans received a “bonus” of 230 points, Lee says.

She points to the second column.

“Hispanics received a bonus of 185 points.”

The last column draws gasps.

Asian Americans, Lee says, are penalized by 50 points–in other words, they had to do that much better to win admission.

“Do Asians need higher test scores? Is it harder for Asians to get into college? The answer is yes,” Lee says.

Zenme keyi,” one mother hisses in Chinese. How can this be possible?

College admission season ignites deep anxieties for Asian American families, who spend more than any other demographic on education. At elite universities across the U.S., Asian Americans form a larger share of the student body than they do of the population as a whole. And increasingly they have turned against affirmative action policies that could alter those ratios, and accuse admissions committees of discriminating against Asian American applicants.

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Lee is the co-founder of HS2 Academy, a college prep business that assumes that racial bias is a fact of college admissions and counsels students accordingly. At 10 centers across the state, the academy’s counselors teach countermeasures to Asian American applicants. The goal, Lee says, is to help prospective college students avoid coming off like another “cookie-cutter Asian.”

“Everyone is in orchestra and plays piano,” Lee says. “Everyone plays tennis. Everyone wants to be a doctor, and write about immigrating to America. You can’t get in with these cliche applications.”

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In the San Gabriel Valley, where aspirationally named tutoring centers such as Little Harvard and Ivy League cluster within walking distance of high schools, many of them priced more cheaply than a baby-sitter, it didn’t take long for some centers to respond to students’ and parents’ fears of being edged out of a top school because of some intangible missing quality.

Helping Asian American students, many of whom lead similar lives, requires the embrace of some stereotypes, says Crystal Zell, HS2’s assistant director of counseling. They are good at math and bad at writing and aspire to be doctors, engineers or bankers, according to the cliches. She works with her students to identify what’s unique about them–and most of the time, that’s not their career ambitions or their ethnicity.

“Everyone comes in wanting the same thing,” Zell said. “But that’s because they don’t know about anything else.”

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Complaints about bias in college admissions have persisted since at least the 1920s, when a Harvard University president tried to cap the number of Jewish students. In November, a group called Students for Fair Admissions filed a suit against Harvard University for admissions policies that allegedly discriminate against Asian Americans. The group cited the 2004 Princeton study and other sources that offer statistics about Asian Americans’ test performance.

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Lee says that she usually tries to at least mention arguments in favor of diversity at her free college seminars. She mentions how the black student population at UCLA has declined precipitously and how student bodies at elite universities probably shouldn’t be 100% of Asian descent. When she looks to see the response, she sees mostly slowly shaking heads.

“It’s really hard for me to explain diversity to parents whose only goal is getting their son into Harvard,” Lee says.

That same ethic causes parents and students to agonize over which box, if any, to check on the race and nationality section of the application. One parent asked Zell whether it would help to legally change the family name to something more Western-sounding.

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