LOS ANGELES — In a windowless classroom at an Arcadia tutoring center, parents crammed into child-sized desks and searched through their pockets and purses for pens as Ann Lee launches a PowerPoint presentation.
Her primer on college admissions begins with the basics: application deadlines, the relative virtues of the SAT versus the ACT and how many Advanced Placement tests to take.
Then she eases into a potentially incendiary topic — one that many counselors like her have learned they cannot avoid.
“Let’s talk about Asians,” she says.
Lee’s next slide shows three columns of numbers from a Princeton University study that tried to measure how race and ethnicity affect admissions by using SAT scores as a benchmark. It uses the term “bonus” to describe how many extra SAT points an applicant’s race is worth. She points to the first column.
African-Americans received a “bonus” of 230 points, Lee says.
She points to the second column.
“Hispanics received a bonus of 185 points.”
The last column draws gasps.
Asian-Americans, Lee says, are penalized by 50 points — in other words, they had to do that much better to win admission.
“Do Asians need higher test scores? Is it harder for Asians to get into college? The answer is yes,” Lee says.
“Zenme keyi,” one mother hisses in Chinese. How can this be possible?
College admission season ignites deep anxieties for Asian-American families, who spend more than any other demographic on education. At elite universities across the U.S., students of Asian descent form a larger share of the student body than they do of the population as a whole. And increasingly they have turned against affirmative action policies that could alter those ratios, and accuse admissions committees of discriminating against Asian applicants.
That perspective has pitted them against advocates for diversity: More college berths for Asian-American students means fewer for black and Latino students, who are statistically underrepresented at top universities.
But in the San Gabriel Valley’s hyper-competitive ethnic Asian communities, arguments for diversity can sometimes fall on deaf ears. For immigrant parents raised in Asia’s all-or-nothing test cultures, a good education is not just a measure of success — it’s a matter of survival. They see academic achievement as a moral virtue, and families organize their lives around their child’s education, moving to the best school districts and paying for tutoring and tennis lessons. An acceptance letter from a prestigious college is often the only acceptable return on an investment that stretches over decades.
Lee is the co-founder of HS2 Academy, a college prep business that assumes that racial bias is a fact of college admissions and counsels students accordingly. At 10 centers across the state, the academy’s counselors teach Asian-American applicants countermeasures. The goal, Lee says, is to help prospective college students avoid coming off like another “cookie-cutter Asian.”
“Everyone is in orchestra and plays piano,” Lee says. “Everyone plays tennis. Everyone wants to be a doctor, and write about immigrating to America. You can’t get in with these cliche applications.”
Like a lot of students at Arcadia High School, Yue Liang plans to apply to University of California campuses and major in engineering — or if her mother wins that argument, premed. She excels at math, takes multiple AP courses and volunteers, as does nearly everyone she knows.
Being an Asian-American applicant, the junior says, is “a disadvantage.” The problem, she says, is in the numbers.
Asian families flock to the San Gabriel Valley’s school districts because they have some of the highest Academic Performance Index scores in the state. But with hundreds of top-performing students at each high school, focusing on a small set of elite institutions, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.
Of the school’s 4,000 students, nearly 3,000 are of Asian descent, and like Liang are willing to do whatever it takes to gain entrance to a prestigious university. They will study until they can’t remember how to have fun and stuff their schedule with extracurriculars. But there’s an important part of their college application that they can’t improve as easily as an SAT score: their ethnicity.
Complaints about racial bias in college admissions have persisted since the 1920s, when a Harvard University president tried to cap the number of Jewish students. In November, a group called Students for Fair Admissions filed a suit against Harvard University for admissions policies that allegedly discriminate against Asian-Americans. The group cited the 2004 Princeton study and other sources that offer statistics about Asian-Americans’ test performance.
At the University of Texas at Austin, an affirmative action policy that allows admissions committees to consider the race of prospective applicants has been argued all the way to the Supreme Court (the policies were upheld by a lower court, but that court’s decision was voided by the Supreme Court. Another court upheld the policies and another appeal is pending.)
Those who defend “holistic” admissions policies insist that considering a broader range of variables ensures that all applicants are judged fairly. And the Princeton study Lee refers to has been widely criticized by academics who argue that it relies too heavily on grades and test scores to draw conclusions about racial bias and that the data the study uses are too old to be relevant.
Still, anxiety over racial admissions rates is peaking as cash-crunched public universities increasingly favor high-paying out-of-state and foreign students at the expense of local applicants of every ethnicity. A 2014 bill that would have asked voters to consider restoring race as a factor in admissions to public California colleges and universities sparked multiple public protests and scathing editorials in Chinese newspapers. The bill, Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, was shelved last year.
Lee says that she usually tries to at least mention arguments in favor of diversity at her free college seminars. She mentions how the black student population at UCLA has declined precipitously and how student bodies at elite universities probably shouldn’t be 100 percent Asian. When she looks to see their response, she sees mostly slowly shaking heads.
“It’s really hard for me to explain diversity to parents whose only goal is getting their son into Harvard,” Lee says