Are Elite Universities Discriminating Against Asians?

Last Updated Oct 9, 2009 7:50 PM EDT

Are Ivy League schools and other elite universities guilty of an Asian bias?
It's a natural question to ask based on a new book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life.

According to Thomas Espenshade, the author and a sociology professor at Princeton, elite private schools are far more likely to reject Asian American applicants than students of other races. The professor discovered that white students were three times more likely to get admitted to an elite school than an Asian applicant.

Espenshade drew this conclusion after examining the admission records of seven highly elite (unnamed) schools from 1997. While the admission figures are admittedly old, higher-ed observers suggest that these admission patterns are still in place.

This finding will surely bolster the complaint of Asian American students and parents that they unfairly face higher admission hurdles because of discrimination.

Espenshade, however, cautions parents from using his research as a smoking gun. Asians are still attending elite private institutions and flagship state universities, such as Cal Berkeley, UCLA and UC-San Diego at far higher numbers than their percentage in the general population, which is less than 5%.

I was curious to see for myself just how high the Asian American concentrations are at a sampling of elite universities so I headed to CollegeBoard.com where I found the following Ivy League statistics:

Percentage of Asian undergraduates
  • Harvard 19%
  • Cornell 18%
  • U. of Pennsylvania 18%
  • Princeton 17%
  • Brown U. 17%
  • Columbia U. 17%
  • Dartmouth 15%
  • Yale 14%
The Asian presence at the University of California system, which is forbidden from using affirmative action, is even greater because the schools rely heavily on grade point averages and class rank:

Percentage of Asian undergraduates
  • UC-Berkeley 42%
  • UCLA 38%
  • UC-San Diego 49%
  • UC-Irvine 54%
  • UC-Davis 39%
A major reason why top research universities turn away so many bright Asians is because so many of them are applying to the same tiny handful of brand name elite universities. Often a third of the teenagers knocking on these doors are Asian.

Not long ago, the issue of "Asian bias" was discussed at a major higher-ed conference and the panelists acknowledged that there could be bias from teachers, counselors and admission officers. At the same time, the experts suggested that many Asians make the college admission process more difficult for themselves by tending to ignore the vast majority of colleges and universities.

Most schools would love to see more Asian teens apply to their institutions. No matter what a student's ethnicity is, I'd suggest that it's often wise to case a wider net.

Ivy League image by jmannikko. CC 2.0.

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