Are There: a) Too Many or b) Too Few Asian-Americans Admitted to College?

<i> John H. Bunzel, former president of San Jose State University, recently concluded a three-year term on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights</i>

Are admissions officers at many of our more selective universities putting numerical limits on the number of Asian-Americans admitted? A controversy about admissions policies--whether they are aimed at slowing down the influx of Asian-Americans and are therefore biased against them--is growing at many schools.

Critics point to Asian-American admission rates (the number offered admission divided by the number of applicants) lower than those of Caucasians, despite Asian-American performance as measured by test scores, high school grade-point averages (GPAs) and subsequent college GPAs that appear to be equal and at times superior to that of Caucasians.

At Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and Brown, Asian-Americans constitute as much as 8% of the freshman classes, but they make up only 2.1% of U.S. population. Using this approach, Asian-Americans appear to be doing well. But this approach is flawed, for several reasons--it ignores the geographic concentration of Asian-Americans in a few states and metropolitan areas, and overlooks the fact that a much higher proportion of Asian-Americans than Caucasians is actually eligible for college admission. Not only do Asian-Americans have excellent test scores and high school grade-point averages, but the proportion that takes the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is much higher than that of Caucasians.

Furthermore, a much larger proportion of Asian-American students continue education past the age of 17. Finally, the use of simple ethnic representation as a basis for evaluating a university’s admission and enrollment figures can be misleading, because such an analysis ignores the number of Asian-Americans who actually apply to that institution. A 2.1% representation in a freshman class would be absurdly low if more than 20% of the applicants were Asian-Americans.


For these reasons, a college’s Asian-American admission rate is the more appropriate statistical indicator. And Caucasian admissions data is the most useful comparative basis for appraising Asian-American admissions. This leads to a key question: Are lower admission rates for Asian-Americans the result of being less qualified than Caucasians, or have Asian-Americans been victims of barriers and inequities in the admissions process?

Official data shows that Asian-Americans are not academically less qualified than Caucasians. In 1982, Asian-Amerian and Caucasian applicants to Harvard had average combined verbal and math scores of 1,251 and 1,258, respectively (out of a possible 1,600). More striking, however, are the SAT figures for both groups offered admission by Harvard: Asian-Americans had an average combined score of 1467, while Caucasians scored 112 points lower, at 1355.

The figures suggest that in order to be offered admission, Asian-Americans had to have higher SAT scores than Caucasians admitted. The data reveals a similar pattern for Princeton in 1982 and 1983 and for classes entering Brown in 1979-1983. It seems clear, then, that academic qualifications of Asian-Americans can’t explain their low admission rates.

No admissions officer has produced any conclusive evidence of significant character or personality differences between Asian-American and Caucasian applicants. But one study of high school students leaves no doubt that Asian-Americans work much harder--the males spent an average of 11.7 hours a week doing homework, while the Caucasian males spent an average of 8.6 hours. One would think industriousness would be regarded favorably by college officials. Yet when asked what personality traits might account for lower admission rates among Asian-Americans, one admissions officer responded that they tend to be “driven.”


Another reason often given is the tendency of Asian-Americans to major in the sciences and technical fields. Yet Department of Education figures show that for both Asian-Americans and Caucasians, business and management has been by far the most popular major. Confidential data from one top-ranked private university reveals that among every category of intended major in 1985, Asian-Americans had a lower admission rate than Caucasians. At this institution, 20% of the Asian-American and 17% of the Caucasian applicants indicated they intended to major in engineering, but the admission rate for Asian-Americans was less than half that for Caucasians.

If the characteristics and qualities of Asian-Americans cannot account for their low admission rates, the remaining possible explanations lie in procedural characteristics of the admission process. A Brown report found that low non-academic ratings were given to Asian-American applicants “due to cultural biases and stereotypes which prevail in the admissions office.” Furthermore, use of a “historical benchmark,” a mechanism that sets enrollment goals in terms of prior freshman classes, lowered the admission rate of Asian-Americans as their applications increased.

With the exception of Brown, however, there is no definitive evidence that numerical limits on Asian-American admissions might be in effect at any other institutions. (Access to decision-making information supporting or refuting such a finding is hard to get.) Nor is outright racism a sufficient explanation. The answer is more complex. For example, a conceptual confusion over the meaning of “diversity” might in part account for the limiting of Asian-American admissions. An internal document at one private university wondered what the underlying rationale was for ethnic diversity. Was it because it is good for the society at large, or because it is mandated, or popular? And how is the goal of ethnic diversity to be balanced against other factors?

When asked why Asian-American admission rates tend to be so low, university officials usually respond that their aim is to achieve “ethnic diversity” in their student bodies and that Asian-Americans are an “overrepresented minority.” The apparent assumption is that admitting more Asian-Americans would contradict the goal. But increasing the number of students whose ethnicity is unlike that of the majority would, by definition, increase the ethnic “diversity” of the students. Besides, limiting Asian-American admissions in the name of “diversity” inaccurately assumes the homogeneity of Asian-Americans, who differ widely in their linguistic, cultural, historical and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Finally, the concept of “overrepresentation” is faulty when applied uniquely to Asian-Americans. Said the Brown report:

“One could only imagine the outcry . . . if Brown decided to reduce its 25%-30% Jewish student population down to the 3% that Jews represent in the national population . . . . The point here is not that we wish to cut . . . the number of Jewish students . . . but that this argument which Brown used to justify limiting acceptance of Asian-Americans is invalid and inconsistent.”

It seems fair to say that Asian-American admission rates have been determined more by the policies, preferences and practices of college admissions officers than by the qualifications of Asian-American applicants. After concluding that there is no implicit quota or evidence of conscious discrimination on the part of the admissions staff, Stanford’s faculty-student committee addressed the problem of a “negative bias” in Asian-American admissions, ranging from the possibility of “unconscious biases” in evaluating subjective data on the part of the admissions staff to “unconscious stereotyping” in letters of recommendation.

There are promising signs that past problems can be prevented. If Asian-American admissions should suddenly rise at a university, it would be essential for all to understand that such an increase is not the result of “unfair advantages” being given to Asian-Americans, but rather the effect of unfair disadvantages being removed.