Is it really harder for Asian-American students to get into good colleges?

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A group representing Asian-American students and their parents have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that Yale, Brown and Dartmouth are discriminating against Asian-Americans by implementing unofficial “racial quotas and caps, maintained by racially differentiated standards for admissions that severely burden Asian-American applicants.”

The Asian-American Coalition for Education (AACE) filed a similar complaint last year, accusing Harvard of discrimination. The Department of Education shelved the case, the Wall Street Journal reported, saying it would wait on a landmark affirmative action case pending before the Supreme Court before it made any moves.


There has long been chatter about a "bamboo ceiling" at elite institutions that serves to cap the number of students of Asian descent despite higher numbers of qualified applicants. In the past, schools that have been accused of discriminating against Asian-American students in admissions have said that Asian-American students were evaluated holistically, as part of an effort to build a diverse class.

But what do the numbers say?

The statistics on Asian-American students at Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, and Harvard from the class of 2000 and the class of 2019 (this year's freshman class) show that at all four schools, a higher percentage of entering freshmen are Asian-American today than two decades ago. At Harvard, the class of 2000 was 16.4% Asian-American; for the class of 2019, it was 21.1%. At Yale, the percentage of Asian-Americans in the entering class jumped from 17.2% to 21.9% during the same period. At Brown, the percentage climbed from 15% to 20%, and at Dartmouth, Asian-Americans gained an entire tenth of the class, from 9.9% to 19%.


But these figures do not take into account the growing population of college-age Asian-Americans, which has doubled over the last 20 years. And they don't tell us the Asian-American acceptance rate; that is how many Asian-American applicants got in to these schools, relative to the number that applied. (Since the Ivies are private schools, they do not have to disclose this information.)

Last year, The Economist compared the enrollment rates of Asian-Americans at Ivy League schools to their rate of enrollment at the California Institute of Technology, which, as a public school in California, does not use race as a consideration in admissions. Here's the chart:

Despite these figures, the Department of Education could still decide that Asian-Americans are not illegally discriminated against in college admission. To prove their case, groups like the AACE may need to find a "smoking gun," a statistic that would show evidence of outright and intentional bias.

The hunt for such a number goes back to at least 1983, when Brown's Asian-American student association released a report on the issue.

After four frustrating years, during which the percentage of Asian Americans admitted to Brown has been consistently lower than the all-college admit rate…talks have resulted in little, if any change in admission policy vis a vis Asian Americans and no substantial increase in the number of Asian Americans admitted each year.


Even in the 1980s, concern about a cap on Asian-American admissions stemming from the "model minority" myth of homogeneously high achievement was already full blown.

The media is unfortunately still so preoccupied with the model minority myth that even many scholars and administrators in our leading educational institutions believe it, the report said. At Princeton, the report's authors claimed at the time, Asians are no longer ever considered minorities.


In their suit, the AACE cite two main studies to support their cases. The first is "The Myth of American Meritocracy," an article published in 2012 by writer Ron Unz in the magazine The American Conservative, that offers evidence of anti-Asian bias in passing while arguing against affirmative action in general. His calculations showed Asian enrollment at Harvard between 1995–2011 "within a single point of the 16.5 percent average" every year—a statistic he believed showed evidence of a soft quota.

AACE also cites a study conducted in 2009 by Princeton lecturer Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford of the nonprofit research institute RTI International. They found that Asian-American applicants were being admitted to schools at a lower rate than white, black or Latino peers with comparable SAT scores, and quantified the shortfall: An Asian-American student would require an extra 140 points on their SAT to achieve the same probability of admission as a student who is white, and 450 extra points to achieve the same probability of admission as a student who is black.


Yet soon after his data was published, Espenshae denied that his numbers provided a smoking gun for bias against Asian students. As Inside Higher Ed reported:

Espenshade said in an interview that he does not think his data establish this [anti-Asian] bias. He noted that while his formulas are notably more complete than typical test score comparisons by race and ethnicity, he doesn’t have the “softer variables,” such as teacher and high school counselor recommendations, essays and lists of extracurricular activities. It is possible, he said, that such factors explain some of the apparent SAT and ACT disadvantage facing Asian applicants.

“I understand the worry of Asian students, but do I have a smoking gun? No,” he said.


The most concrete piece of evidence, one not cited by AACE, came last summer, when Sara Harberson, a former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, admitted in an op-ed that students of Asian descent are indeed the subject of racial quotas.

Nowadays nobody on an admissions committee would dare use the term racial "quotas," but racial stereotyping is alive and well. And although colleges would never admit students based on "quotas," they fearlessly will "sculpt" the class with race and gender percentages in mind.


And admissions officers are guilty of treating Asians as homogenous "model minorities," she said.

….there's an expectation that Asian Americans will be the highest test scorers and at the top of their class; anything less can become an easy reason for a denial.

And yet even when Asian American students meet this high threshold, they may be destined for the wait list or outright denial because they don't stand out among the other high-achieving students in their cohort. The most exceptional academic applicants may be seen as the least unique, and so admissions officers are rarely moved to fight for them.

In the end, holistic admissions can allow for a gray zone of bias at elite institutions, working against a group such as Asian Americans that excels in the black-and-white


I could not immediately reach Harberson to get her take on the latest lawsuit.

So, there is certainly evidence of Asian American students facing headwinds when applying to top schools. The question is how to remedy the situation. For AACE, there is a clear culprit: affirmative action, which they argue allows less-qualified students to gain admission at the expense of Asian-Americans.


"As a community that has been adversely and unlawfully affected by race-based affirmative action in college admissions, we do not support its continuation or application beyond the strict limits set by the United States Supreme Court," they write.

AACE has filed an amicus brief in support of Abigail Fisher in her Supreme Court fight against the University of Texas, which denied her admission. Fisher claims she was edged out purely on the basis of being white.


But other Asian groups stand in support of the University, even if they agree that there is likely some bias at work. Last fall, over 160 Asian American and Pacific Islander groups filed amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of affirmative action.

"Supporters of Fisher have mischaracterized UT-Austin's race-conscious admissions policy. It can benefit Asian Americans through an individualized review of applicants that avoids harmful stereotypes based on the 'model minority' myth," Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund Executive Director Margaret Fung said in a statement.


The Wall Street Journal notes that some Asian-American applicants have been advised to leave the ethnicity box on their application unchecked, or to apply to humanities programs that have lower concentrations of Asian-American students. One college counselor, Nat Smitobol, told the paper that these steps can help level the playing field, at least until the Department of Education weighs in.

“It’s tougher for Asians to be successful because they’re competing against a pool that’s quite saturated,” Smitobol said.


Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.