“Do Asian American applicants face an unlevel playing field?” was the opening question posed to me by NPR All Things Considered weekend host Arun Rath in an interview about the “landscape” of college admissions.

It was not a question I was expecting, and for a moment I hoped I was having a version of that dream where you realize that the final exam is tomorrow and you’ve somehow forgotten to go to class for the entire semester.  The issue had come up in passing in a pre-interview the previous day with a producer from the show, but I didn’t expect it to be the focus of the interview.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I had somehow missed a news story a couple of days earlier that a coalition of 64 organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that Harvard’s holistic admissions process deliberately discriminates against Asian-American applicants.  A lawsuit making the same claim was filed last November in federal district court by the group Students for Fair Admissions.  And within a couple of days after the NPR story ran the Boston Globe reported that college admissions “consultants” (not the same thing as college counselors) are advising Asian-American students to appear less “Asian” when applying to elite colleges.

I answered Rath’s question by explaining (but not defending) the nature of highly-selective college admissions.  In an environment where only 5% or 10% of applicants will be offered admission, there are lots of exceptionally qualified students who won’t get in. To borrow a phrase from logic, merit is necessary but not sufficient.   Selectivity, the desire to build a well-rounded class, and the belief in holistic admission all frustrate students and parents who want to understand what it takes to get in.  I also expressed my view that the hidden currency of selective admissions is uniqueness (that may not be the right word), in that the more there is of any quality or talent the less valuable it is, and vice versa.

As a college counselor (rather than a “consultant”), I sit down with every student who aspires to attend an Ivy or similarly selective college or university and explain that earning admission requires both a superb record and luck.  That is especially the case for students without a hook (recruited athlete, diversity, legacy).  The odds for unhooked applicants are much lower, probably less than 1%.  Of the thirteen students in this year’s senior class who were admitted to a national highly-selective school, only one didn’t have some combination of hooks (if you count a couple of Early Decision full pays).  All had superb credentials, but without the hooks they probably wouldn’t have been admitted.

So are Asian-American applicants intentionally discriminated against or just unhooked?  They are not currently underrepresented in the Harvard student body.  Asian-Americans make up 20% of Harvard’s student body, compared with 5% of the general population in the United States.  That doesn’t mean they’re not discriminated against, of course, if they “deserve” an even larger percentage. Affirmative action cases such as Fisher v. Texas refer to the concept of “critical mass,” an imprecise term, given that a precise numerical definition of critical mass looks a lot like a quota. Critical mass is normally thought of as a minimum number, but might it entail a maximum as well?

The plaintiff in the court challenge, Students for Fair Admissions, is an offshoot of the Project for Fair Representation, an advocacy group headed by Edward Blum devoted to ending race-conscious admission.  The group’s concern for the plight of Asian-Americans may be more a matter of convenience than conviction, as it has also filed a lawsuit against UNC-Chapel Hill with no mention of Asian-American applicants. Questionable motives do not automatically mean that the suit is without merit.

Most of the evidence of discrimination presented in the Students for Fair Admissions suit is prima facie, circumstantial in nature.  A 2009 study by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford concluded that Asian-Americans needed SAT scores 140 points higher than white students to get into elite colleges at the same rates.  The consistency in percentage of Harvard students from various ethnic groups over a long period of time is cited as evidence of racial balancing, as is the discrepancy in the percentage of Asian-Americans at Harvard (20%) compared with the percentage at Cal Tech (40%), which doesn’t take race into consideration in admission.

Then there is the historical argument against holistic admission.  Holistic admission, including such application staples as the personal essay, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation, traces its origins back to the 1920s, as documented in Jerome Karabel’s dense but fascinating history of admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, The Chosen.  Holistic admission was part of a move from the “best student” paradigm to the “best graduate” paradigm, ultimately replaced by today’s “best class” paradigm.  Karabel’s contention is that holistic admission was a tool to limit the Jewish enrollment at Harvard, and the lawsuit argues that today holistic admissions limits the number of Asian-Americans.

I don’t want to believe that holistic admission is being used to unfairly discriminate today, even if it’s clear that in the past terms such as “character” and “leadership” were defined in a narrow, even racist, way.  I believe in holistic admission and regret that the Common Application has moved away from it as a pillar of its mission, but also recognize that holistic admission can be a veil of secrecy over the admissions process.

If Asian-American applicants are being disadvantaged in the selective admissions process, it’s less due to holistic admission than other factors.  One is the increasing international nature of the student bodies at highly-selective schools.  Why admit Chinese-Americans when you can admit students from China? 

The other is the “class full of differences” paradigm, which values and rewards spike talents and compelling personal narratives rather than the superb resume pursued by many Asian-American students.  At a counselors’ breakfast I attended last fall sponsored by five highly-selective colleges, the consensus among the admissions officers present was that 90% or more of applicants were qualified, even superbly qualified, but very few were “interesting.”

I was annoyed by that attitude, because I think that a college education should help young people become “interesting,” but in this case it’s also instructive.  Asian-American applicants don’t have to be advised to be less Asian, but rather more interesting, more individual.  In the same way that independent schools had to come to grips that what might be best for a student educationally, being a well-rounded individual, was no longer the best way to earn admission to a highly-selective college or university, the path pursued by many Asian-American applicants, superb grades and scores supplemented by a menu of activities like tennis and violin, is no longer the sure path to Harvard or other schools.


P.S.  My hope is to do one more post next week before the blog goes on summer break.