Report finds no strong evidence of discrimination against Asian American college applicants

New research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) explores common arguments made by critics of affirmative action who say the policies discriminate against Asian American applicants. Analyzing data from 91 of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities, the report, Selective Bias: Asian Americans, Test Scores, and Holistic Admissions, finds “no strong evidence of discrimination against Asian American applicants in admissions” to those schools.

Asian American and Pacific Islander students make up 6 percent of the college-going population but account for 18 percent of enrolled students at the nation’s selective institutions. Still, groups such as Students for Fair Admissions—which represents Asian American students claiming systematic discrimination at Harvard and other universities—have alleged in court cases that selective schools hold Asian American applicants to a higher standard in order to inflate the number of students from other backgrounds.

Related: Federal judge rules Harvard admissions non-discriminatory >

Common allegations ‘unconvincing’

Looking at selective colleges’ acceptance rates, enrollment patterns, and standardized test scores, CEW’s new report debunks several ‘unconvincing’ claims that Asian American applicants would hold significantly more seats if colleges considered only academic merit.

Affirmative action critics, for instance, often note stagnation in the share of Asian American students at selective colleges across the past two decades. CEW’s analysis, however, found that Asian American and Pacific Islander enrollment at selective colleges has “kept pace” with growth in their representation among all four-year college-going students. Between 1999 and 2018, the proportion of students at selective colleges who were Asian American and Pacific Islander grew by 4 percentage points; their enrollment share across all four-year colleges, meanwhile, increased by just 2 percentage points.

Critics also commonly cite Asian American applicants’ relatively low acceptance rates compared to those of other ethnic and racial groups. But CEW points out that Asian American students are more likely than other groups to apply to selective colleges, even when their test scores are lower. Twelve percent of Asian American students with SAT scores below 1300 applied to one of the nation’s most selective schools, compared with just 5 percent of their non-Asian American counterparts.

But what if colleges used only standardized test scores to make their admissions decisions? Some affirmative action opponents have asserted that Asian American students would secure many more admissions offers under a system that strongly prioritized SAT/ACT performance. CEW’s simulation found, however, that the gain in enrollment share for Asian American applicants “would be marginal” under that scenario—no more than 2 percentage points.

“On the flip side, 21 percent of Asian American applicants who were previously admitted would no longer qualify” in an admissions system focused singularly on test scores, said CEW Director and lead author Anthony P. Carnevale.

Ultimately, “the real issue here is much bigger than all this,” Carnevale told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “The American education system, pre-K through college, is highly segregated. And until you change that with policies that try to provide equal opportunity from preschool to the end of your college career, you can’t have much impact.”

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