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College Admissions in the American Melting Pot

While Indians face rising racism in America, some of them are opposing the admission of Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities to the top colleges. The National Federation of Indian-American Associations, the American Society of Engineers of Indian Origin and two other Indian organizations are among 64 Asian American organizations which formed the Asian American Coalition for Education. In 2015, the coalition filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice stating that over the last two decades, “many Asian-American students who have almost perfect SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores, top 1% GPAs (grades,) plus significant awards or leadership positions in various extracurricular activities have been rejected by Harvard University and other Ivy League Colleges while similarly situated applicants of other races have been admitted.”

Since 1980, Asians make up over 30% of students representing America in global high school competitions like the science, math and computing Olympiads. Yet, the complaint says, the number of Asian American students admitted to Harvard, Princeton, Yale and other Ivy League and top colleges has stayed between 14% to 18%, despite the increasing number of qualified candidates. It added that the top colleges reject high-achieving Asian-American applicants in favor of less-qualified Black, Hispanic and White applicants.

The coalition apparently want more Asians to be admitted to the top colleges by reducing the number of Black and Hispanic admissions. Leaders of the Indian groups deny this saying they also oppose admissions of less qualified White applicants. “A white kid should not get preferred treatment at the expense of Asians and the general quota should be based solely on merit, ” one of them told IndiaWest. Meanwhile the Asian American complaint is being used by White conservatives, including President Donald Trump, in pursuit of their own political agenda.

In 2014, the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA,) filed lawsuits against a top private and a top public university seeking the abolition of racial preferences in college admissions. It’s a conservative non-profit organization for “…students, parents and others who believe that racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary and unconstitutional.” The SFFA says that the “affirmative action battle has a new focus: Asian Americans.” Its website lists “high-achieving” Asian students who did not get into the top colleges.

The SFFA’s lawsuit against Harvard alleges that the university is “employing racially and ethnically discriminatory policies and procedures in administering the undergraduate admissions” which discriminates against Asian Americans and gives preferences to other racial minorities. The SFFA made similar allegations against the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a state run university. It notes that in 2013, Harvard’s Asian American enrollment was 18 percent. At universities that admitted students based solely on exam results, the lawsuit argues, Asian Americans made up a third of the students at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses of the University of California and 43% at Caltech. The group refers to a 2009 Princeton study which found that Asian-Americans need SAT test scores 140 points higher than Whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics and 450 higher than Blacks to get into one of the top private colleges.

The Democratic administration of President Barack Obama ignored the complaint of the Asian American groups. But in 2017, soon after Trump became president, his Republican administration used the complaint to launch an investigation into admissions at Harvard. Opposing the investigation, the university stated that it’s admission process reviews “…many factors, consistent with the legal standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court.” Students are not admitted solely based on grades and test scores. They “…must have the ability to work with people from different backgrounds, life experiences and perspectives,” a spokesperson for Harvard stated. After the government said it will sue, the university agreed to give the Justice Department access to the records of past applicants. The U.S. Supreme Court will likely decide the fate of the Harvard investigation and the SFFA lawsuits.

The Harvard investigation is welcomed by conservative groups who say that many White students are not being admitted to the top colleges despite higher test scores, to accommodate Blacks and Hispanics with far lower scores. One of them is the Center for Equal Opportunity, run by Republican Roger Clegg a former official in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. In a statement Clegg said the investigation is an “overdue development that the administration will be taking a hard look at schools that insist on weighing skin color and national origin in deciding who gets admitted…racial preferences harm many low-income Asians as well as whites.”

Kim Forde-Mazrui, a University of Virginia law professor, told the Los Angeles Times that White conservative “leaders purported concern for discrimination against Asian Americans is politically opportunistic.” The Trump Administration’s use of the Asian American complaint to investigate Harvard, “…is primarily about conservative leaders protecting the privilege of access to society’s resources and opportunities for certain white constituents…”, he added. Opposing minority college admissions “is a convenient scapegoat for those who seek to pit minority groups against each other,” says Daniel Golden wrote in an opinion piece published in ProPublica.

Most Indians and other Asian Americans oppose the complaint, the lawsuits and the investigation. A 2016 poll, sponsored by Asian Americans Advancing Justice, found that 64% of Asians supported affirmative action programs which help Blacks, Hispanics, women, and other minorities improve their chances of getting admission to colleges. Asian students experience racial bullying, slurs and profiling and “…studies show that colleges and universities that reach the highest levels of diversity have fewer incidents of racial hostility,” the group says. A non-profit based in Washington D.C., the Justice group’s mission is “to advance the civil and human rights for Asian Americans.”

The Asian group has filed legal arguments backing Harvard’s admission policies. It notes that “a commonly held myth is that Asian American applicants need to score higher on standardized tests in order to gain admission into our country’s most selective colleges. In reality, any test score gap between Asian Americans and other students is not related to affirmative action because the same test score gaps exist whether a university considers race in its admissions policy or not.” The test scores can be increased significantly by participation in expensive test-preparation courses. The scores are therefore socio-economically skewed in favor of students from wealthier families, who can afford to pay for test preparation courses.

In California, when a measure banned the consideration of race in university admissions, there was a plunge in underrepresented minority enrollments, the Asian advocacy group points out. The drop though was not offset by nonracial programs to increase diversity such as enrollments based on income, as the opponents of college quotas for minorities said it would. States that have attempted to use nonracial proxies, such as socioeconomic status, in order to increase racial diversity at schools and colleges have found that such proxies fail to wholly eliminate the barriers faced by many minorities.

One big hurdle Asian Americans face in getting admitted to the top American colleges is sharply rising competition from fellow Asians. From 2000 to 2015, the Asian population in America rose by 72%, reaching over 20 million, according to a Pew Research Center report. About a quarter of the Asians are Chinese and a fifth are Indians. The new immigrants settle in big metropolitan areas with large Asian populations like New York, Silicon Valley, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Since they value good education, Asian parents push their children to study, get high test scores and get admitted to the top public schools. Wealthy Asians send their children to private schools. Asians hire tutors and spend much time and money on training their children to take part in math, science, music and other competitions, hoping to boost their chances of admission to a good college. Such aggressive Asians see themselves as tiger parents, a term widely used to describe them by the media.

In the major metropolitan regions, Asians compete for college admissions among themselves as well as with a very large number of qualified, non-Asian applicants, many of whose parents are educated, ambitious professionals. The top colleges admit a sizeable number of their students from these regions. But, over the past several decades, they have barely increased their capacity. So the number of students admitted from the big cities, as well as other parts of America and from abroad, have stayed roughly the same. Each year, due to the rapid rise in the Asian population and little or no increase in the total admissions, more Asian parents are disappointed that their children did not get in to a top college. Looking for easy answers, some Asian parents put the blame on the colleges for admitting Blacks and Hispanics.

Meanwhile the competition among Asians is getting tougher in the big cities due to electoral politics. In 2018, Blacks and Hispanics made up 67% of New York’s public school population. But they together accounted for only 12% of the admissions to the top eight public high schools that year. A vast majority of the city’s public school students, who are admitted to the top American colleges, are from these eight schools. The schools are free, like the rest of the public schools. So there is intense competition for admission to the top high schools. Asians have done well since selection was based purely on the results of a competitive entrance exam. In 2018, for instance, 52% of the students admitted were Asians; they are only 16% of New York city’s population.

The city administration does not have the funds to invest in hiring and training good teachers and providing resources to raise the quality of all the public schools. Also, the politicians have little interest in such long-term solutions since they only care about winning the next elections. Instead, over a three year period starting in 2019, the Democratic mayor of New York plans to admit the top 7% of students from all middle schools to the top high schools, instead of using the three hour competitive entrance exam results. He is also similarly changing admission standards at some of the good public middle schools. Black and Hispanic leaders have welcomed the decisions as has The New York Times.

Asian American groups are protesting since the changes will reduce the number of Asians admitted to the top high schools. Such cuts in turn will likely result in fewer Asians from New York public schools getting admitted to the top American colleges. Asians have little political clout since they are few in numbers and are not major, well organized political donors.

While some Asian American groups are currently critical of the admission criteria for Blacks and Hispanics at the top colleges, their earlier complaints were about the admission of Whites. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Asian groups lodged several complaints against the top colleges for denying admissions to highly qualified Asians while admitting Whites with lesser test scores. In 1986, as a result of one such complaint, an internal investigation by Stanford University found that “subconscious bias (towards Whites) by admissions officers was likely the culprit” for the wide differences in admission rates between equally qualified Whites and Asian American applicants.

In part due to public pressure, the top colleges began admitting more Asian Americans. From 1980 to 2015, their share of admissions rose sharply at all eight Ivy League colleges, according to a study by The New York Times. Meanwhile the admission of Whites declined to about 50% of the student population. At Caltech, for instance, the number of Asian Americans exceeded Whites in 2015. Their numbers were roughly the same that year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Asian American complaint and the lawsuits may lead to a few more seats for Asians at some of the top colleges. But it will also likely lead White conservative groups to target them next. Some White conservatives are already seeking cuts in the number of Asian American college admissions, to halt further declines in the admissions of Whites. “Engineering schools are all full of people from South Asia, and East Asia,” Steve Bannon said in a media interview during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Bannon was Donald Trump’s chief election strategist. He added that (White) American students “…can’t get engineering degrees; they can’t get into these graduate schools…When they come out, (the American students)…can’t get a job.”

The more logical target for middle-class Whites, as well as Asians, should be what Daniel Golden calls “the preferences of privilege” at the top colleges. As Golden points out in ProPublica, his 2006 book, The Price of Admission, discusses the preferences which “elevate predominantly white, affluent applicants: children of alumni, big non-alumni donors, politicians and celebrities, as well as recruited athletes in upper-crust sports like golf, sailing, horseback riding, crew and even, at some colleges, polo.” The number of Whites who get privileged admissions outweigh the number of minorities aided by affirmative action, Golden notes. The preferences, he adds, “…displace more deserving candidates from other backgrounds, including Asian Americans and middle-class whites, without achieving the goals of affirmative action, such as diversity and redressing historical discrimination.”

By Ignatius Chithelen
Investments Manager, Banyan Tree, New York; and Advisor to Global Indian Times, New York.

Extracted, re-edited and re-titled from Chithelen. Ignatius. 2018. Passage from India to America: Billionaire Engineers, Extremist Politics and Advantage to Canada and China. Bryant Park Publishers, New York. This is a sequel to his earlier book titled Six Degrees of Education: From Teaching in Mumbai to Investment Research in New York.
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