Asian American applicants to selective colleges appear to be at a disadvantage. Nationally, they have the highest average SAT scores, and yet many African American and Hispanic students with lower scores and grades are accepted to Ivy Leagues schools while high-performing Asian American students are rejected even when their families are similarly poor and undereducated.
My Oct. 12 column ("Should Colleges Have Quotas for Asian Americans?") discussed this, and I assumed it would attract little comment. Unfairness to that relatively small minority group is almost never mentioned by major news organizations. Outspoken advocates for change, like New Jersey physician Ed Chin who inspired the column, are few in number and mostly ignored.
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But I was wrong. The e-mails poured in, obliging me to share the surprising reaction I received to this overlooked aspect of the affirmative action issue.
As Chin noted, the percent of African American and Hispanic students in selective college freshman classes is often higher than the percent of applicants from that group, while the opposite is true of Asian Americans. In 2001, 20.3 percent of applicants to Brown University's class of 2005 were Asian American, but only 16 percent of the acceptances were. The percent of white applicants and acceptances was about the same, 66 percent, while African Americans comprised 9 percent of the acceptances and only 6 percent of the applicants, and Hispanics had 9 percent of the acceptances and only 7.1 percent of the applicants.
Chin is of Chinese descent, and was raised in New York City by low-income, immigrant parents. I thought I would hear from many Asian Americans who supported Chin, while other readers would be skeptical. But I was wrong. Readers of Asian descent were as divided on the issue as everyone else. The clash of race and class, of fairness and equity in this particular debate is so complex that nobody seems to have a predictable reaction, which is fine with me.
Virginia Y. Kim, for instance, is a lawyer in Chicago who grew up in an affluent, suburban Cleveland Korean-American family with what she called "the traditional Asian education ethos." She said she has heard complaints like Chin's all her life and her response has always been, "Who said life was fair?"
Huy N. Tran, a San Jose State University student of Vietnamese descent, said he thought it was wrong for Chin to suggest that other cultures do not value education as much as Asian American cultures do. "I have met students of all different cultures who take a full load of classes and work several jobs to pay for their education," he said.
Anne Soh, a Korean-American Wellesley graduate, said she agreed with Chin that it is theoretically unfair that there is a quota at the top schools that works against Asians. But she said she would not want to attend a college that dispensed with the affirmative action race-balancing policies that Chin and others find so distasteful because part of the learning experience of college is getting to know people from different backgrounds.
On Chin's side, however, was Arun Mantri, who was born in India and has children at a very selective public school, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. He said it was wrong that high-quality Asian students at that school were being rejected by top colleges. "Their chances would improve dramatically if race was not used as a factor in admissions, perhaps at the cost of the white applicants, something that only a few selective schools have dared to do," he said.
Also supporting Chin's argument was a member of one of the minority groups that tends to get more of a break in college admissions than Asian Americans do. Paul Grandpierre described himself as "a first generation Haitian American from a really poor family who managed to graduate law school." He said he thought affirmative action was better than doing nothing about the "inclination of the human heart to rationalize superficial differences into fundamental differences." But, he said, "I agree with Mr. Chin that today, affirmative action should focus on the poor and not merely on blacks. . . . I can tell you that from my experience that being poor presented more powerful obstacles to my unlikely ascent than being black."
Chin also had support from non-Hispanic white readers. Jeff Werthan said it was paternalistic and patronizing for me to suggest that "a hard-working and brilliant Asian student and his or her family . . . should be satisfied with the other admittedly good schools out there if they are otherwise deserving of admission to Harvard or Yale."
A white reader, who declined to let me use his name because he does not want to offend the university that employs him, said his experience as an admissions officer confirms Chin's sense of unfairness. "What scares the top colleges is what their campuses might look like, racially speaking" if they followed Chin's suggestion and rejected middle-class African American and Hispanic students in favor of higher-scoring, low-income Asians. They fear, he said, "the sort of intense heat they'd take for the presumed drop in 'diversity.'"
Chin's argument does, however, rest upon sophisticated analysis of test scores and a willingness to emphasize averages, rather than the many individual cases that do not support his point. Many readers saw that as a weakness.
Mike Martin, a research analyst with the Arizona School Boards Association, warned Chin against putting so much weight on test scores in determining who is being discriminated against, particularly when looking at the narrow band at the very top of the SAT scale. "So if you accidentally mismark a question, or misconstrue a question, only one question, you could drop out of the 1600 club," he said. "In W. Edward Deming's preaching about corporate management he warned about making decisions based on differences that were within normal variation."
Michael J. McCabe, whose children have attended the challenging D.C. private school, St. Anselm's Abbey, noted that white kids are also rejected by selective colleges for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their applications. His older son graduated in the top five of his high school class, had a 1470 SAT, was an Eagle Scout, captain and founder of the school's Science Bowl team and co-captain of its "It's Academic" team. Yet he was rejected by Dartmouth, Rice and the University of Virginia. McCabe thinks U-Va. had reached its quota for students from D.C. private schools, not an unreasonable theory given the way such colleges fill their classes.
So now, McCabe said, his son is thriving academically at Carnegie Mellon, but he and his roommate, who is from China, often complain about "the large proportion of Asians in the engineering and computer programs and the limited interaction they have with students of different socioeconomic backgrounds."
Most of the people who responded to the column appeared sympathetic, however, to Chin's view that colleges should make less of race in their admissions decisions and look more closely at family income. A student who had overcome difficult circumstances to compile an impressive high school record was likely to appreciate what a great university had to offer.
If the system is to change, and worthy Asian American students are to get what they deserve, they are going to need more advocates than just Ed Chin and the few other civil rights and admissions experts who have raised these issues. Shellye McKinney, a former college admissions officer, said that "affirmative action was created because people fought for it" and those who think it is hurting students of Asian descent are going to have to struggle in the same way to make themselves heard.
As I usually tell Chin when he rails against the American media in general and me in particular for not giving his concerns enough attention, there has to be dramatic evidence of support for his thinking before editors and news directors will get interested. Street demonstrations, boycotts, major conferences, bills in Congress -- all those things would help.
The press tends to pay attention to those who are shouting the loudest, and so far the people Chin is trying to help have been very quiet.