Race poses challenges to admissions
By Ester Khachatryan
Published on Monday, February 13, 2012
Following an August 2011 complaint filed against Harvard University and Princeton University by an Asian-American student, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the allegation that the student — who is of Indian descent — was denied admission to the two universities due to his Asian heritage. The student performed at the top of his high school class, according to Bloomberg.
Some members of the Dartmouth community interviewed by The Dartmouth said, the alleged bias against Asian-American students plays a role in the college admissions process.
A 2009 study revealed that Asian-American applicants need a score of 1550 out of 1600 on the SAT exam to compete with white applicants scoring 1410 and African-American applicants scoring only 1100, according to Bloomberg.
Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School and former senior admissions officer at Stanford University, criticized the study — conducted by Princeton sociology professor Thomas Espenshade — for its incomplete look at college admissions and tendency to ignore other portions of students’ files, such as extracurricular activities.
The distribution of 11 to 22 percent Asian-American students in Ivy League colleges implies that the “quota hypothesis is possible,” though unlikely and difficult to prove, according to Reider.
“Colleges are very careful and they train their staff to be fair, and they would be unlikely to go toward discrimination,” Reider said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
However, Michele Hernandez, who served as the assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth in the mid-1990s, said the College took care at that time to ensure that the percentage of minority students did not fluctuate each year.
“Every week we had reports on what was the percentage of every group, broken down by African-American and Hispanic, because the minority admissions officers had to meet their quota,” she said. “It would look bad if Dartmouth had 10 percent African American one year and went down to 5 percent the next year.”
Hernandez said different admissions standards exist for Asian-American students.
“I think they should ban race from admission and just use a socioeconomic flag,” Hernandez said. Hernandez said the lack of Asian-Americans in Ivy League admissions offices serves as a factor that disadvantages Asian-American applicants.
“I think to a typical admission reader, a lot of Asians look like hard driving, high-achieving kids with no passion,” she said. “I think that’s the stereotype right there.”
Competitive schools that do not ask applicants about their race in admissions materials have higher percentages of Asian students, according to USA Today. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, cannot consider race in admissions due to California state law, and 40 percent of its students identify as Asian. Before the law was passed, 20 percent of the university’s students identified as Asian, USA Today reported.
Students are also declining to specify race on college applications more frequently in order to prevent race-related biases, according to USA Today.
In accordance with this trend, some multi-racial Dartmouth students said they chose not to disclose their racial identities during the admissions process.
Chase Mertz ’15, whose mother is Chinese and father is white, chose to mark only the “white” bubble on the Common Application.
“I did not fill in the Asian bubble because it’s just a disadvantage to getting into college,” he said.
Kara Mui ’15, who is white and Chinese, said she checked either the “multi-racial” or “Asian” boxes on her college applications, largely for the sake of receiving funding.
“It’s mostly that I feel Asians have a bigger chance of acceptance, especially for scholarships because there aren’t any white scholarships,” she said. “They are all Asian or minority scholarships.”
Jyotsna Ghosh ’12, who is of Bengali and white descent, said she always marked the “multi-racial” box, feeling that being multi-racial worked to her advantage in the admission process because colleges often try to fill quotas of applicants.
She said racial specifications on college applications can help colleges determine the socioeconomic privilege of applicants but does not believe race plays a significant role in college admissions.
“I think you have to look underneath the easy superficial explanations for things,” Ghosh said. “I know the people at home, a lot of them who had great scores were lacking in some of the multi-dimensional aspects that a lot of the very competitive schools are looking for.”
The first in her family to attend college, Olivia Baptista ’12 said she thinks admission to Dartmouth is based on many different factors including socioeconomic background, merit, test scores and grade point average, leaving no specific formula for acceptance.
“What’s so interesting about the admissions process is you can have all of the criteria, but it’s just a matter of they have to pick and choose,” she said. “Just having scores or just being smart might be enough, but if they need to fill a few criteria with one student then it’s not enough.”
Although controversial, race continues to be used in the admissions process. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify using race in university admissions,” according to the court’s decision.
The perception that race is an important admissions factor influences how students approach the college admissions process, according to students interviewed by The Dartmouth
Mary Peng ’15, an international student from Canada of Chinese descent, said many Asian students feel they must focus on maintaining high GPAs and SAT scores to compete in the college admission process.
“It’s easier for African-Americans or white people to get into college,” she said. “I feel that it’s unfair that Asians have to work so much harder just to get to the same place.”
Jeffrey Portnoy ’12 said he thought an admission candidate’s GPA and the level of grade inflation in the particular high school a student attended are the most important to an admissions officer.
“Clearly [Asian-Americans] are competing against themselves more than they are competing against the general populace,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s fair to hold someone to a higher standard because of their ethnicity. I think that is the crux of what racism is.”
Ghosh said many of her Indian-American friends were apprehensive about competing in a college admissions process that they believed maintains racial quotas, forcing Asian-Americans to compete internally within a racial category.
Emmanuel Kim ’15 said creating a diverse student body in this way draws not the best of the whole high school student population but the best of each racial group. Kim noted that discrepancies in SAT test scores along racial lines are partly a result of Asian-Americans’ “self-imposed” determination to keep setting “a higher standard” for achievement.
The investigation launched by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights in 2008 is the second investigation in this field in two decades.
A 1990 report found that “Harvard didn’t violate civil rights laws because preferences for alumni children and recruited athletes, rather than racial discrimination, accounted for the gap.”
Representatives from the Admissions Office were unavailable for comment by press time.