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The Truth About Discrimination in the College Admissions Process

In 2015, 64 Asian-American groups filed a complaint against Harvard University for what they claimed to be discrimination in the college admissions process. Some may argue that the groups are simply creating a rationale for getting rejected from the institution, but the numbers don’t lie. Many of the enraged previous Asian-American applicants sported nearly perfect SAT scores, played multiple instruments, were named captains of their sports teams and participated in numerous extracurricular activities.

With such a resume, one would expect a fair shot at an Ivy League acceptance; however, rejections are not uncommon in the Asian-American community. Elite universities use quotas disguised as admission systems, unwarranted triple standards between races, and out-of-date desegregation plans to hold Asian-American applicants to higher, unreasonable standards that often result in rejection and extreme emotional distress.

The debate has long been centered around the concept of affirmative action, but recently the conversation has shifted to more specific cases given the term doesn’t fully encompass the issue. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines affirmative action as “an effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women”. It was a policy that most colleges adopted, via different methods, after the “Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against students and college applicants on the basis of race or gender”.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was first passed and affirmative action was in its early years, colleges tended to take the policy too far. In 1978, a white male sued a medical school and claimed he was subject to discrimination. The Supreme Court did rule in his favor, but it also solidified that colleges could use race as a factor in admissionsIt wasn’t until 2013, in Fisher v. The University of Texas, that the Supreme Court ruled that a college can only use ethnicity as a deciding factor if all other aspects of an application are equal.

Despite what the law may defend and colleges may claim, Asian-Americans are faced with discrimination throughout the admissions process. As a result, levels of emotional distress in aspiring college students are increasing, making suicide the 8th leading cause of death of Asian-Americans in their late teens and early twenties. These devastating effects may be due to the biased admissions process used by many elite institutions.

The most elite university of them all, Harvard, prides itself on being one of the first universities to accept affirmative action and is known for having a diverse community; however, the case against the university claims that Harvard sets quotas on the number of Asian- Americans allowed admission. Given that the number of Asian-Americans living in the United States has only risen since the 1990s, the number of Asian-Americans applying to elite universities has also skyrocketed; however, the percentage of Asian-American students actually accepted and in attendance does not concur with this trend.

The only fluctuation in the number of Asian-Americans admitted to Harvard from 1992 to 2013 was a single percent drop from 19% to 18% attendanceIt was also found that in 2013, Ivy League colleges Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, and Yale all had Asian-American enrollment rates that ranged from 14 to 18 percent. Since then, Harvard’s Asian-American acceptance rate has risen and settled to around 20 to 22 percent. It’s evident that the percentage of Asian-Americans in elite universities is disproportionate and does not accurately reflect the Asian-American applicant pool, especially considering a 2004 Princeton study found Asian- Americans make up the largest percentage of the most qualified applicants. This leads many to believe that Harvard, as well as several other elite universities, are putting quotas in place to regulate the demographics accepted.

Not only are universities using quotas to regulate acceptance, but they are also holding Asian-Americans to a higher standard than all other races in the applicant pool. A Princeton study found that Asian-Americans must score approximately 140 points higher than a white student and 450 points higher than a black student on their SAT in order to level the playing field in a college admissions room. Using race as a factor in admissions originated as a way to desegregate colleges; however, in order to truly cultivate the high-performing status that all prestigious universities pride themselves on, it’s only fair that the most qualified students be accepted. The reason these triple standards are set in place is that, without them, acceptance rates of other minorities will decline.

Even though, in 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the “University of Michigan’s point system favoring minority applicants was unconstitutional”, it still defends affirmative action; however, this does not automatically ascend to all states. California, Texas, and Florida are among the states that don’t recognize the policyA 2013 study by the University of Washington found a 23 percent decrease in the admission rate of African-Americans and Latinos at the universities in states where affirmative action is banned. It was also found that the California Institute of Technology alone has seen an 18% increase of Asian-Americans from 1992 to 2013. This proves that other candidates, namely Asian-Americans, are often more qualified than the students that actually get accepted given their race and ethnic background. Therein lies the issue: the root of the problem is not affirmative action, it’s rather the predicament of whether colleges can create quotas and manipulate a triple standard that undermines the work of a specific demographic.

Granted, no college will ever admit to outright bias in their admissions process and they will continue to insist all demographics are of equal importance. Universities use the law, admissions systems, and individual discretion to defend acceptance selections. Even though the Supreme Court deemed quotas unconstitutional in 1978 in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, many elite universities, Harvard included, still find ways to manipulate the system and disguise their motives under a “holistic admission system”, meaning they consider all aspects of an applicant, not only test scores.

It’s important to note that the holistic admissions system was first developed when Harvard believed admitting a high number of Jewish students would “ruin the college”. Essentially, the holistic process allows many colleges to claim that other candidates have “intangible characteristics” that place them higher above Asian-Americans, who possess an acknowledged stereotype of only succeeding in the classroom. It’s not uncommon for admission officers to deny acceptance with the argument that all Asians seem too alike on paper. This is an issue because Asian-American students are being compared only to other Asian-American applicants, instead of being ranked against the entire pool, where they may place substantially higher against the majority of other applicants.

Despite what colleges are legally bounded to, there are evident cases of discrimination against Asian-Americans in the admissions process. By using quotas disguised as a holistic admission system and triple standards with aims to desegregate schools, elite universities are holding Asian-American applicants to higher, unreasonable standards that often result in extreme emotional distress.

If the admissions process continues to practice unfair evaluations and hold Asian-Americans to higher academic standards based solely on race, then the emotional and mental dilemma will only grow. If colleges across the country are striving for racial equality, stricter regulations must be put in place to guard against the evident bias against Asian-Americans in the college admissions process. To disqualify and undermine a student’s work based on their race is absurd, all students should be evaluated equally in relation to their situation and success.

Asian-Americans should not have to be solely pitted against one another in competition for a spot in the lowly 20 percent of Asian-Americans admitted, they should be equally judged in comparison to the entire applicant pool. Of course, the solution is not to revert back to a completely race-blind admissions process and ignore the “structural disadvantages” black and Latino students face; instead, universities need to implement a more comprehensive version of affirmative action that focuses on socio-economic problems, not just race and gender.

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Ariel Zedric is a student at Tufts University. When she's not studying, you can find her wandering around on her blog at Contact via email at or on Twitter or Instagram @arielzedric

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