Several years ago a Korean-American student in one of my politics classes at Princeton described the reaction of his Asian classmates in the California private school he attended when the college acceptance and rejection letters arrived in the mail the spring of their senior year. A female Black student, he explained, had applied to more than half a dozen of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the nation and got accepted to all of them, deciding eventually to enroll at Stanford. Many of his Asian friends, he said, along with many Whites, reacted bitterly to the Black student’s success, some in open disbelief that this student could be so phenomenally successful in her college search. Why was there such bitterness among his classmates, I wanted to know. “Were there better qualified Asian and White students with higher SAT scores than the Black student?” I asked. “Better qualified?!” he said, “there were loads of Asian and White students who were much better qualified, with much higher SAT scores, much higher grade point averages, and who were much more active in student government and a host of other extra-curricular activities than this Black student.” To add further fuel to his classmates’ anger, he went on, this particular Black student had a cold, off-putting, self-centered personality which hardly endeared her to her classmates. “She didn’t make it on charm” was the gist of his further remarks here.
This Korean student’s story was in the back of my mind as I read the newspaper accounts about the racial discrimination complaint lodged not long ago with the Department of Education against Princeton University by Jian Li, the Chinese-American student at Yale who had a perfect 2400 (i.e. three 800s) on the newer version of the SAT. Li was a stellar student in high school, who in addition to his perfect SAT score achieved near-perfect scores on several of the College Board achievement tests (SAT IIs), took nine Advanced Placement courses, and had a near-perfect grade-point-average that placed him in the 99th percentile of his graduating class in a competitive suburban high school. In addition to his top-of-the line academic performance, Li was active in a number of extracurricular activities, and was a delegate to the prestigious Boys State. All of this would be an impressive achievement for anyone, but Li was the son of Chinese immigrants, his first language was Chinese, and English was not spoken in his home. Li’s academic achievement was a truly remarkable and inspiring story of talent, persistence, and the immigrant work ethic in pursuit of the American Dream.
Li was happy at Yale and lodged his complaint not because of any animus against Princeton — Princeton was only one of five elite universities that rejected his application (Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Penn were the others) — but because of a general sense that Asian applicants to elite colleges were being unjustly disfavored in comparison to the members of other minority groups, especially Blacks and Hispanics, and were not being evaluated fairly under the same set of academic standards as others. For anyone familiar with the admissions policies at the more selective colleges and universities over the past thirty years, Li’s complaint not only rang true but has been well-documented again and again wherever the situation has been adequately studied. The simple fact is that a Black or Hispanic student with Li’s credentials would almost certainly have gained admission to every elite institution he or she applied to. Indeed, an “underrepresented minority student” would have stood a decent chance of gaining admission to some of the schools Li was rejected at with test scores a hundred to two-hundred points below each of his scores on the three-part SAT exam.
Continue reading Is There An Asian Ceiling?