When the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) confirmed last month that an Asian-American applicant had filed a complaint alleging discrimination in the admission processes at Princeton and Harvard, students on campus largely shrugged.
After all, this had happened before. The rejected applicant’s complaint against Princeton, which was withdrawn in mid-February, had been folded into an ongoing official review of University admissions that began in 2008 after a similar claim by another student, Jian Li. Both complaints reflected a common concern among many Asian-American students, who make up 17.7 percent of the undergraduate student body — that they may face a higher bar when it comes to getting into top schools.
Race is one of the factors considered in the admission process, University spokesman Martin Mbugua told The Daily Princetonian last month. But in an email, he emphasized that each application is considered in a “holistic manner.”
“Princeton University seeks to assemble a class whose composition, in the University’s judgment, would enrich the educational experience for all of our students and further the University’s mission,” Mbugua said. “We treat each application individually, and we don’t discriminate on the basis of race or national origin.”
Some evidence suggests Asian-American applicants to selective universities do appear to be at a disadvantage. According to No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, a 2009 book by Princeton sociology professor Thomas Espenshade *72 and Alexandria Radford *09, an otherwise identical Asian-American applicant with the same test scores and GPA as a white applicant is less likely to gain admission to an elite college. Like most studies on college admission, these results are based on measurable data such as GPA, test scores, and legacy status, but not “softer” factors like extracurricular activities and personal statements.
“Whether or not there is a disadvantage in the admission process, the perception definitely exists,” said Sungwoo Chon ’13. For some Asian-American students, that has meant feeling the need to work harder to excel in school and extracurricular activities. Others, like Brian Chen ’13, who quit violin and picked up swimming in high school, said that the perceived bias encouraged them to pursue passions that, while enjoyable, were also conscious efforts to break conventional stereotypes.
Avoiding the Asian stereotype — quiet, book-smart, focused on science and math — is an ever-present concern, many Asian-American students said. Leo Shaw ’12, for example, suggested that for some, “it can be a bigger issue that causes a subtle and maybe unconscious sense of deficiency, as if there’s something wrong with being Asian-American.”
For high school seniors already anxious about standing out in a sea of applications, the concern that admission officers won’t see past an Asian surname — despite schools’ assurances to the contrary — adds to the anxiety.
“It constrains you. It puts pressure on you to try and make yourself different,” said Charles Du ’13, who along with Tara Ohrtman ’13 has picked up the baton in the Asian-American Students Association’s decades-long effort to establish an Asian-American studies certificate program. The association hopes to create a forum for discussion of issues including discrimination, said co-president James Chang ’14.
The discussion is sure to return, and perhaps perceptions of bias — warranted or not — will always linger in students’ minds. But as long as admission to elite universities remains so competitive, as Grace Pak ’13 put it with a shrug, “How can you really know that your race was the one thing?”