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Working Paper: Asian Americans Face Lower Admissions Odds to Selective Schools than White Students

Asian Americans face lower odds to be admitted into colleges and universities than white students with similar test scores, GPAs, and extracurriculars. That's according to new research distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research.Josh GrossmanJosh Grossman

The findings were revealed in a working paper titled, "The disparate impacts of college admissions policies on Asian American applicants,” written by researchers from multiple universities including Stanford, Brown, University of Michigan, and Harvard.

The researchers looked at 685,709 first-year college applications from 292,795 Asian American and white students to selective U.S. schools over five application cycles (2015-2020), excluding students who attended a foreign high school or held a primary citizenship from another country. The analyzed applications were submitted through a national postsecondary application platform, said Josh D. Grossman, a Ph.D. candidate in computational social science at Stanford University and one of the authors of the paper.

To note, the findings in this report are not based on admissions decisions, said Grossman, who added that the researchers did not have access to that data. Instead, the researchers created a proxy based partially on enrollment choices. 

According to the working paper, Asian American students were admitted at consistently lower rates than white applicants with comparable SAT/ACT test scores, particularly for South Asian applicants.

The researchers also estimated that, after accounting for test scores, high school GPAs, and extracurricular activities, South Asians had it the worst out of the three separated subsets of Asian applicants in the study. They faced 49% lower odds of admission than white applicants, compared to 17% lower odds of admission to the considered schools for East Asian and Southeast Asian applicants.

Once researchers adjusted for early applications, high school, and legacy applicant status, they found that Southeast Asian students were accepted at similar rates to white students. But East Asian and South Asian applicants still had 10% and 30% lower odds, respectively.

Still, the research does not point to “explicit animus” towards Asian American students, Grossman said.

“It doesn’t prove nor disprove explicit animus,” Grossman said. “Rather, it’s trying to show that particular policies or preferences can impose a disparate impact on different racial groups.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the race-conscious admissions practice of affirmative action via its ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a lawsuit alleging Harvard discriminated against Asian Americans in its admissions process.

But the researchers and authors of the working paper note, that differences in admission rates of similarly qualified white and Asian American applicants, is “conceptually distinct” from affirmative action.

“In particular, during the time period we consider, institutions could have admitted Asian American applicants at rates comparable to similarly qualified white students while still giving preference to applicants from groups underrepresented in higher education,” the authors write. 

Affirmative action itself is not discriminatory towards Asian Americans, said Dr. Nicholas D. Hartlep, the Robert Charles Billings Endowed Chair in Education at Berea College. He argued that what was actually discriminatory was “negative action,” which are instead “policies or practices which disadvantage Asian Americans in elite school admissions in comparison specifically to white Americans,” according to a 2021 paper in the Boston University Law Review.

The paper, “Asian Americans, racial stereotypes, and elite university admissions,” separated negative action from affirmative action, defining the latter as “race-conscious university admissions policies.”

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