Are Asian American college applicants at a disadvantage? Supreme Court debate stirs fear
Kenji Horigome’s college application featured a 4.2 GPA, challenging coursework and a compelling narrative of losing his father as a boy and struggling to make ends meet with his single mother, a low-wage Koreatown restaurant worker. But he didn’t bother to apply to Harvard or Yale.
“I heard that Asians have to get perfect SATs and perfect GPAs and still wouldn’t get in,” said Horigome, now a first-year student at Harvey Mudd College. “Friends say our GPAs are way higher than non-Asians but they’re getting in more than us. It’s created a feeling of unfairness.”
The question of whether Asian Americans experience bias in college admissions captured the national spotlight this week during intense arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court over whether to abolish affirmative action. Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit opposed to racial preferences, has alleged that Harvard and the University of North Carolina violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection by considering race in admissions decisions — and that the Ivy League campus specifically discriminates against Asian Americans.
“Race is a minus for Asians, a group that continues to face immense racial discrimination in this country. Asians should be getting into Harvard more than whites, but they don’t because Harvard gives them significantly lower personal ratings,” the group’s attorney, Cameron T. Norris, told the court.
The points raised in the high court debate stirred passions this week among Asian American families and students as they reflected on the formidable pressures and anxieties they experienced when preparing college applications — the culmination of high school students’ work for families who place an immense value on higher education. Many said they personally grappled with the fear that their records would fall short because of the perceived bias against Asian Americans.
Tony Fan, a candidate for the Alhambra Unified School District board, has witnessed the stress — and the great lengths some Asian Americans take to improve their chances of receiving that coveted acceptance letter. Families are moving to locales with fewer Asians in the hopes that they can better compete, he said. Some parents are renaming their children to mask their Asian identities. And some college counselors who cater to Asian clients often advise applicants to stay away from “stereotypical” activities such as violin and math club and instead look for activities that showcase originality.
In arguments over affirmative action, Supreme Court conservatives sound ready to forbid use of race in college admissions.
Nicole Clark, 28, was baffled and angry by advice from an Arcadia college coaching service to de-emphasize her Asian heritage. For an essay on overcoming hardships, she was told that Asian American hardships would be discounted compared with those experienced by Black and Latino applicants — which she felt pit the groups against one another.
Clark, whose mother is Taiwanese and father white, was subjected during counseling to “intense conversations about getting your name legally changed so you could apply with a white-sounding name,” a discussion that surprised her despite her own surname. And one instructor advised her to read Toni Morrison’s award-winning “Beloved” to gain a deeper understanding of Black lives so she could “come across acculturated,” Clark said.
She was accepted to Yale in 2012, majored in English literature and now works as a culture editor in Los Angeles.
Harvard denies discriminating against Asian Americans, pointing to a lower court ruling that found no evidence of bias in its ultimate admission decisions. But the high court’s conservative members signaled skepticism about affirmative action, with Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Samuel A. Alito Jr. homing in on concerns of bias among Asian Americans.
“We have many briefs on this point from Asian American applicants ... and they say there’s an entire industry to help them appear less Asian on their college applications and that they consider elite colleges to have Asian quotas effectively, if not in name,” Gorsuch told Seth P. Waxman, an attorney representing Harvard.
Waxman countered that multiple Asian American organizations cited studies showing that students of Asian descent “demonstrably benefit from a holistic admissions policy that considers race as one factor among many.” The court’s three liberals argued that affirmative action remains necessary and that the nation’s top universities need racial diversity on campus.
One national survey, based on responses from 2014 to 2022, found that nearly 70% of Asian American registered voters support affirmative action as a way to help women and racial and ethnic minorities better access higher education. A 2019 Pew Research poll found 58% of Asians said race should not be a factor in college admissions. Researchers say responses greatly depend on how the question is asked.
Clark said she is “hugely supportive of affirmative action” adding “it’s vital for historically underrepresented minority groups so that they have access to education.”
Whether Asian Americans actually encounter bias is difficult to discern, since college admission processes at selective campuses are shielded in confidentiality. At Harvard, among students with roughly the same grades and test scores, the admission rate of Asian Americans was lower than for other races and ethnicities, according to an analysis submitted by affirmative action opponents. Harvard said the figures were misleading since admission decisions were made on broader criteria than such academic metrics.
At the University of California, which has been barred for 25 years from using race or gender in admissions decisions, the picture is somewhat different.
As the Supreme Court weighs affirmative action, the University of California’s struggle with diversity since a 1996 ban offers lessons.
Overall, UC admits Asian Americans at the highest rate among all first-year California applicants: about 73% compared with 63% for Latinos, 57% for whites and 56% for Black students for fall 2022. Asian Americans also had the highest admission rate at UC Berkeley, while Latinos were tops at UC San Diego. Black students had the highest rate at UCLA, although they were a much smaller pool — 671 students with an 11% admission rate — than other races. More than 3,270 Asian Americans were admitted at UCLA for fall 2022, a 10% acceptance rate.
Asian American California residents who earned admission into the first-year fall 2020 class had higher grades and SAT test scores than those of most other groups. Students of Chinese descent, for instance, had test scores more than 250 points higher than those of Latino and Black students and 80 points higher than whites’. Such data fuel perceptions among many Asian Americans that they have to work harder to get the same chance.
UC no longer uses SAT scores in admissions decisions and evaluates applicants through a comprehensive review process of 13 factors, such as grades, coursework, special talents and individual circumstances, including income and parent education level. But the perception of bias drives some some Asian American families to take action.
One Taiwanese household legally changed its surname from Shin to Sheen, “like Charlie Sheen, because Shin is obviously too ethnic,” Fan said. “They did that when they immigrated to the U.S. because they want their kids not to be considered Asian.”
At the Diamond Jamboree plaza in Irvine this week, Linda Chang said she’s following the affirmative action debate keenly to better understand the challenges awaiting her own family. She has two teenagers and relatives in California and outside of Seoul who are intending to send their youngsters overseas for higher education.
The Korean American mother said she would not hesitate to bypass checking the box on ethnicity to improve her children’s chances for college admission. While some of her friends have departed the Golden State for Arizona or Florida, she’s still weighing changing addresses.
For now, she’s telling her teenagers to begin building a resume of original activities and plans to hire a college admission counselor to guide their path. “Don’t always stay home and read,” she tells them. “You have to get out there and join sports or dance or volunteer for something that’s not just working at a nursing home. Pick unusual activities to make your reputation.”
Jenny Lee, shopping for seafood and shiitake mushrooms at the plaza’s H-Mart in Irvine, has already started preparing her middle school daughter’s path to college — UCLA, she hopes.
The University of California plans to offer conditional admission to students who aren’t eligible as first-year applicants as long as they meet course and grade requirements at a community college.
She books a private tutor three times a week and sends her to science and gymnastics camp and summer school every year. She has already researched potential lab internships for when her daughter enters high school — and she’s monitoring all the social media accounts associated with her favorite campus.
“Start young,” she said. “Must start young.”
“I realized it’s my paycheck or her paycheck, and though that’s in the future, we must plan ahead,” Lee added. “We must give her, like, the edge. As an Asian trying to get into college in California, there are so many obstacles you haven’t thought of.”
But such actions — the early tutoring, the parent-driven resume building — may backfire, said Leelila Strogov, CEO and founder of AtomicMind, a New York-based education technology company offering college coaching. She said Asian Americans, who make up about 70% of her 60 or so clients, face scrutiny from admission officers over whether they are “counterfeit kids,” those molded by helicopter parents, or self-driven students reflecting their own authentic passions and talents.
She said Asian Americans should not deny their identities — “You have to own who you are,” she said — but strive to stand out from a crowd with such activities as original research supervised by a high school teacher who can validate the work. They should also confound stereotypes that Asian Americans aren’t intellectually curious or are more interested in making money than improving society by reading literature and philosophy, for instance, or launching activities to help communities, she said.
“Be original,” she advised. “Don’t try to follow someone else’s track that worked. Create your own.”
Vijay JoJo Chokal Ingam, a college advisor with the Los Angeles Resume Service, counsels his clients to deemphasize their Asian ancestry. He was admitted to St. Louis University medical school in 2015 after masking his Indian heritage and checking the race box “Black” — as it described his dark skin although he concedes it was misleading. He never completed medical school, opting instead for an MBA at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
He tells his Asian American clients not to indicate their interest in their own community’s campus groups on college applications but showcase interest in broader diversity goals. This week he advised a client applying to a UC Irvine graduate program to express interest in an LGBTQ club rather than an Asian American one.
“I don’t blame my colleagues who don’t want to reveal that they are coaching Asian and white clients to hide their race,” he said. “No one including me is proud of it. We do it only because we do not want our clients, or anyone else, to become victims of racism.”
Lisa Przekop, admissions director at UC Santa Barbara, doesn’t think much of advice to downplay an Asian ethnicity or avoid violin, math or other activities only because they seem stereotypical. The campus, which shields the name, race and ethnicity from its application readers, admitted about 29% of Asian American first-year California applicants for fall 2022, the highest share among all racial and ethnic groups.
“I would really hate to see a student avoid an activity that they love because they feel it adds bias — really bad advice in my opinion because students need to focus on activities outside of academics for their own mental wellness and personal development,” Przekop said. “These activities look very positive on an application.”
Such assurances don’t necessarily comfort students rejected from their colleges of choice, however. Even with straight A’s, Vianh Tran did not get into any of the UC schools she applied to last fall — UCLA, Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, San Diego and Santa Barbara. The Fountain Valley resident had competed for her high school’s surfing team, did an internship at a local dental office and logged community service hours feeding homeless people.
Her experience, shared by many top applicants across all races, makes her feel that “getting into a UC is a lottery,” said Tran, 18.
Steve Lin, 17, a Monterey Park resident and high school junior, is about to begin the college admissions process. The student musician, who posts under a nickname on TikTok and other social platforms, regards his Chinese ancestry as a negative.
“Man, when they see we’re Asian, they’ll probably reject us. It’s supply and demand. There’s too many of us,” he said.
Lin said he will try to persuade his parents to let him venture farther — possibly to the Midwest or an overseas studies program.
“There’s strength in numbers when you live here, and maybe that’s good for something like voting,” he said “But for our education, we need a backup plan.”
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