Harvard bias against Asian-Americans?

Harvard bias against Asian-Americans?

WASHINGTON - If you are Asian-American, you might have a harder time getting into Harvard University, according to a complaint filed by more than 60 Asian-American organisations with the United States federal government.

The complaint, filed about a week ago, suggests that Harvard sets a higher bar for Asian-American students during its admission process and the community is pushing back.

Mr Zhao Yukong, chairman of the organising committee that put the complaint together, said: "The fact that there are more than 60 organisations proves that there are widespread grievances in the Asian-American community."

This dissatisfaction has been aired before. Last November, non-profit group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed a lawsuit against Harvard University alleging that the school has racial quotas that limit the number of Asians gaining admission. The lawsuit is still pending in the federal court.

Early last year in California, the Asian-American community also managed to prevent an amendment to the state Constitution, which would allow race to be considered during college admissions.

Mr Edward Blum, president of SFFA, told The Sunday Times that "virtually every Ivy League school has similar policies" which discriminate against Asian-American students, while the complaint led by Mr Zhao states that schools such as Yale, Brown and Dartmouth "inexplicably enrol Asian-Americans in remarkably similar numbers year after year".

The argument boils down to whether race should be removed from the equation when schools admit students. While some in the Asian community strongly believe this should be the case, many universities have said their priority is to ensure a diverse college community and race is one of the many factors they would take into consideration.

This year, Harvard said 21 per cent of its new students are Asian-Americans, higher than the 17.6 per cent a decade ago.

But in comparison, the enrolment statistics of the California Institute of Technology, which uses race-neutral admission practices, show that Asian-Americans made up 44 per cent of its new admissions last year.

Mr Zhao pointed out that it is more in line with the applicant pool, as "Asian-American applicants have doubled in the last 20 years".

His group also found that across America, over the last five years, Asian-Americans accounted for 31 per cent of the top students in high schools.

"That should be the benchmark," said Mr Zhao.

Other evidence suggests that just to get a foot in the door, Asian-American students have to have stellar test results.

A book published in 2009 by Princeton Professor Thomas J.

Espenshade and co-author Alexandria Walton Radford argued: "An Asian-American student has to score 140 points higher than a white student, 270 points higher than a Hispanic student and 450 points higher than a black student on the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) to be on equal footing."

Professor of education Mitchell Chang, from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), said he thinks the "Asian tax" is something that Asian-Americans face in top universities.

But schools, he said, "consider a lot of different things. Just because there is a test score difference does not mean there is discrimination going on".

It does not help that many Asian-Americans come from large metropolitan areas and states such as California and New York. Schools do take these geographic similarities into account when they make their decisions, said Prof Chang.

"All things being equal, an Asian-American from Alabama is much more likely to get in than an Asian-American from California," he said.

Following the complaint by the Asian associations, Harvard University's general counsel Robert Iuliano said that the school's admission process is "fully compliant with the law" and each applicant is subject to a "holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide range of differences".

Racial diversity is one of these differences, and Prof Chang said the research in favour of it is "pretty compelling".

"Students are more likely to have cross-racial interactions, cognitive growth in cultural awareness and interest in serving communities," he said.

Prof Chang also noted that top schools just do not have the space to admit all top applicants.

At a school like Harvard, the acceptance rate was 5.3 per cent this year, with only 1,990 students admitted.

"Even if the number of Asian- Americans admitted is doubled, there are going to be a lot of people who are upset, people who feel they have worked hard and are deserving who didn't get in," said Prof Chang.

California state's maths champion rejected by top schools

Asian-American student Michael Wang, 19, was a captain of his high school speech and debate team, came in first in California in a mathematics competition and even sang for US President Barack Obama during his inauguration in 2009.

Academically, Mr Wang ranked second in his high school. He had an SAT score of 2,230, which falls in the second-highest tier of SAT scores accepted at Princeton - a perfect score is 2,400. He also had a perfect ACT score, another standardised test for college admission.

On paper, this should have given him a good shot at any Ivy League university of his choice, but he still received rejection letters from top schools such as Yale and Princeton. He was put on the wait list by Harvard.

"With my credentials, I should have been able to get into these schools," said the American- Chinese student, who now attends liberal arts school Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Like many top Asian-American students, Mr Wang felt he was discriminated against due to his race.

"There was a feeling of dejection, helplessness and a bit of anger," said Mr Wang, whose parents are educators and encouraged him to pursue a wide range of interests.

He also noted that he was different from the typical Asian-American candidate, as he was not applying for a mathematics or science course. Instead, he was interested in politics and international relations.

"What more could I have done to get into those institutions?" he asked.

In 2013, he filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, using his own case as an example of racially discriminatory admissions practices. He was, however, told that he would receive an e-mail if anything came up.

When asked why he did not take part in a sport to break out of the Asian stereotype - yes, he also plays the piano - he said plainly: "I didn't have the time, my schedule was completely packed."

Today, he still believes Asian- Americans face discrimination during the admissions process, so he spends his time outside of school working with organisations to prevent this from happening.

"I work with them to provide a face for this complaint," he said.

simlinoi@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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