School Standards Are Probed
Even as Enrollment Increases;
A Bias Claim at Princeton
By DANIEL GOLDEN
November 11, 2006; Page A1
Though Asian-Americans constitute only about 4.5% of the U.S. population, they typically account for anywhere from 10% to 30% of students at many of the nation's elite colleges.
Even so, based on their outstanding grades and test scores, Asian-Americans increasingly say their enrollment should be much higher -- a contention backed by a growing body of evidence.
Whether elite colleges give Asian-American students a fair shake is becoming a big concern in college-admissions offices. Federal civil-rights officials are investigating charges by a top Chinese-American student that he was rejected by Princeton University last spring because of his race and national origin.
Meanwhile, voter attacks on admissions preferences for other minority groups -- as well as research indicating colleges give less weight to high test scores of Asian-American applicants -- may push schools to boost Asian enrollment. Tuesday, Michigan voters approved a ballot measure striking down admissions preferences for African-Americans and Hispanics. The move is expected to benefit Asian applicants to state universities there -- as similar initiatives have done in California and Washington.
If the same measure is passed in coming years in Illinois, Missouri and Oregon -- where opponents of such preferences say they plan to introduce it -- Asian-American enrollment likely would climb at selective public universities in those states as well.
During the Michigan campaign, a group that opposes affirmative action released a study bolstering claims that Asian students are held to a higher standard. The study, by the Center for Equal Opportunity, in Virginia, found that Asian applicants admitted to the University of Michigan in 2005 had a median SAT score of 1400 on the 400-1600 scale then in use. That was 50 points higher than the median score of white students who were accepted, 140 points higher than that of Hispanics and 240 points higher than that of blacks.
Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, said universities are "legally vulnerable" to challenges from rejected Asian-American applicants.
Princeton, where Asian-Americans constitute about 13% of the student body, faces such a challenge. A spokesman for the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights said it is investigating a complaint filed by Jian Li, now a 17-year-old freshman at Yale University. Despite racking up the maximum 2400 score on the SAT and 2390 -- 10 points below the ceiling -- on SAT2 subject tests in physics, chemistry and calculus, Mr. Li was spurned by three Ivy League universities, Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Office for Civil Rights initially rejected Mr. Li's complaint due to "insufficient" evidence. Mr. Li appealed, citing a white high-school classmate admitted to Princeton despite lower test scores and grades. The office notified him late last month that it would look into the case.
His complaint seeks to suspend federal financial assistance to Princeton until the university "discontinues discrimination against Asian-Americans in all forms by eliminating race preferences, legacy preferences, and athlete preferences." Legacy preference is the edge most elite colleges, including Princeton, give to alumni children. The Office for Civil Rights has the power to terminate such financial aid but usually works with colleges to resolve cases rather than taking enforcement action.
Mr. Li, who emigrated to the U.S. from China as a 4-year-old and graduated from a public high school in Livingston, N.J., said he hopes his action will set a precedent for other Asian-American students. He wants to "send a message to the admissions committee to be more cognizant of possible bias, and that the way they're conducting admissions is not really equitable," he said.
Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said the university is aware of the complaint and will provide the Office for Civil Rights with information it has requested. Princeton has said in the past that it considers applicants as individuals and doesn't discriminate against Asian-Americans.
When elite colleges began practicing affirmative action in the late 1960s and 1970s, they gave an admissions boost to Asian-American applicants as well as blacks and Hispanics. As the percentage of Asian-Americans in elite schools quickly overtook their slice of the U.S. population, many colleges stopped giving them preference -- and in some cases may have leaned the other way.
In 1990, a federal investigation concluded that Harvard University admitted Asian-American applicants at a lower rate than white students despite the Asians' slightly stronger test scores and grades. Federal investigators also found that Harvard admissions staff had stereotyped Asian-American candidates as quiet, shy and oriented toward math and science. The government didn't bring charges because it concluded it was Harvard's preferences for athletes and alumni children -- few of whom were Asian -- that accounted for the admissions gap.
The University of California came under similar scrutiny at about the same time. In 1989, as the federal government was investigating alleged Asian-American quotas at UC's Berkeley campus, Berkeley's chancellor apologized for a drop in Asian enrollment. The next year, federal investigators found that the mathematics department at UCLA had discriminated against Asian-American graduate school applicants. In 1992, Berkeley's law school agreed under federal pressure to drop a policy that limited Asian enrollment by comparing Asian applicants against each other rather than the entire applicant pool.
Asian-American enrollment at Berkeley has increased since California voters banned affirmative action in college admissions. Berkeley accepted 4,122 Asian-American applicants for this fall's freshman class -- nearly 42% of the total admitted. That is up from 2,925 in 1997, or 34.6%, the last year before the ban took effect. Similarly, Asian-American undergraduate enrollment at the University of Washington rose to 25.4% in 2004 from 22.1% in 1998, when voters in that state prohibited affirmative action in college admissions.
The University of Michigan may be poised for a similar leap in Asian-American enrollment, now that voters in that state have banned affirmative action. The Center for Equal Opportunity study found that, among applicants with a 1240 SAT score and 3.2 grade point average in 2005, the university admitted 10% of Asian-Americans, 14% of whites, 88% of Hispanics and 92% of blacks. Asian applicants to the university's medical school also faced a higher admissions bar than any other group.
Julie Peterson, spokeswoman for the University of Michigan, said the study was flawed because many applicants take the ACT test instead of the SAT, and standardized test scores are only one of various tools used to evaluate candidates. "I utterly reject the conclusion" that the university discriminates against Asian-Americans, she said. Asian-Americans constitute 12.6% of the university's undergraduates.
Jonathan Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, said most elite colleges' handling of Asian applicants has become fairer in recent years. Mr. Reider, a former Stanford admissions official, said Stanford staffers were dismayed 20 years ago when an internal study showed they were less likely to admit Asian applicants than comparable whites. As a result, he said, Stanford strived to eliminate unconscious bias and repeated the study every year until Asians no longer faced a disadvantage.
Last month, Mr. Reider participated in a panel discussion at a college-admissions conference. It was titled, "Too Asian?" and explored whether colleges treat Asian applicants differently.
Precise figures of Asian-American representation at the nation's top schools are hard to come by. Don Joe, an attorney and activist who runs Asian-American Politics, an Internet site that tracks enrollment, puts the average proportion of Asian-Americans at 25 top colleges at 15.9% in 2005, up from 10% in 1992.
Still, he said, he is hearing more complaints "from Asian-American parents about how their children have excellent grades and scores but are being rejected by the most selective colleges. It appears to be an open secret."
Mr. Li, who said he was in the top 1% of his high-school class and took five advanced placement courses in his senior year, left blank the questions on college applications about his ethnicity and place of birth. "It seemed very irrelevant to me, if not offensive," he said. Mr. Li, who has permanent resident status in the U.S., did note that his citizenship, first language and language spoken at home were Chinese.
Along with Yale, he won admission to the California Institute of Technology, Rutgers University and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He said four schools -- Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania -- placed him on their waiting lists before rejecting him. "I was very close to being accepted at these schools," he said. "I was thinking, had my ethnicity been different, it would have put me over the top. Even if race had just a marginal effect, it may have disadvantaged me."
He ultimately focused his complaint against Princeton after reading a 2004 study by three Princeton researchers concluding that an Asian-American applicant needed to score 50 points higher on the SAT than other applicants to have the same change of admission to an elite university.
"As an Asian-American and a native of China, my chances of admission were drastically reduced," Mr. Li claims in his complaint.Category: Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping