ESSAY- Victims of success: Colleges reject Asian-Americans

In most contexts on college campuses, Asian-Americans are "people of color," a stripe in the multicultural rainbow. But when it comes to elite-college admissions, Asian-Americans put a strain on the usual "minority" alliances.

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Jian Li, a freshman at Yale, had filed a complaint against Princeton with the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education, charging that the university had rejected him because he was Asian-American. Despite perfect SAT scores, near-perfect achievement test scores, nine AP classes, and a class rank in the top 1 percent at Livingston High School in New Jersey, Li says he was rejected by Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT, while getting into Yale, Cooper Union, Rutgers, and Cal Tech.

Li, whose family moved to the United States from China when he was 4, told The Daily Princetonian that he was "fine" with being at Yale, but that discrimination against Asian-Americans in admissions had long bothered him. His decision to sue Princeton alone was "kind of arbitrary," he said. "If something comes of it, it will send a message for all the universities."

To judge from the responses in Ivy League newspapers, most students wish he'd spared the effort. In The Daily Princetonian, Zachary Goldstein, a 2005 graduate, said the Yale frosh was "like a bad ex-boyfriend," harassing Old Nassau after she'd spurned him. A Yale Daily News columnist, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, in a guest piece for the Princeton paper, called it "reprehensible" that "Li had the gall to unnecessarily racialize a personal defeat."

The Yale writer went on to note that, in fact, "Asian-Americans are over represented" at Princeton: They make up 13 percent of undergraduates, compared with 4.5 percent of the population.

Princeton's admissions office, for its part, maintains that it makes no effort to align student demographics with the national population. Describing Li's complaint as "without merit," Princeton spokespeople have said that every student is evaluated using both academic and nonacademic criteria (such as leadership and artistic ability). And like other colleges, Princeton defends giving black and Hispanic students, children of alumni, and athletes a boost on the nonacademic side of the ledger.

Yet Li isn't alone in his concerns, the derision heaped on him by his contemporaries notwithstanding. Daniel Golden, author of the Journal story this month, helped bring the issue of discrimination against Asian-Americans to life this year in his book, The Price of Admission, in which he dubs Asian-Americans "the new Jews."

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Jewish applicants with straight As vexed elite-college admissions officers who wanted to maintain a strong WASP tone on their campuses. The result was quotas.

Golden basically concludes that some Asian-American students who would be admitted if they were of any other ethnicity are rejected– often for reasons based on stereotype– to make room for "more desirable" students. But he can't make an airtight case. The question now is: Will the Office of Civil Rights, with its investigative powers, prove Li and Golden right?

In the late 1980s, in response to complaints, the Office of Civil Rights investigated whether Harvard had been discriminating against Asian-Americans. It found that while Asian-Americans faced longer odds than whites at admissions time (a 13.2 percent acceptance rate, compared with 17.4 percent for white students, from 1979 to 1988), the difference could largely be explained by the fact that few were legacy kids or recruited cornerbacks. The investigation did, however, turn up some embarrassingly stereotypical descriptions of rejected Asian students in Harvard records ("He's quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor").

To bolster his case, Li has cited work by two Princeton researchers, Thomas Espenshade and Chang Chung, that was originally framed as strengthening the case for affirmative action. In articles published in 2004 and 2005 in Social Science Quarterly, the two authors analyzed the admissions fates and qualifications of 45,500 students who applied to three very elite, unnamed universities in 1997.

The chief finding, according to the writers, was that ending all admissions preferences– for athletes, legacy kids, and minorities– would cut the number of black students at elite colleges by two-thirds, and Hispanic enrollment by one-half. Ending just legacy and athletic preferences, meanwhile– something often proposed by egalitarians– would, on its own, not help black and Hispanic students much.

But Li's complaint draws attention to other aspects of the study: Asian-American students faced by far the lowest admissions rates of any ethnic group (17.6 percent, compared with 23.8 percent for whites, 33.7 percent for blacks, and 26.8 percent for Hispanics). What's more, contrary to the Office of Civil Rights report from 1990, legacy and athletic preferences trimmed Asian-American enrollment by only a few percentage points.

But if preferences based on race, legacy status, and athletic talent were all done away with, Asian-American enrollment would jump 40 percent (while white enrollment would drop by 1 percent). To Li, it seems Asian-Americans alone bear the burden of affirmative action.

Espenshade declined to answer questions about the study, saying via e-mail that he only wished to state "the obvious: academic merit is not the only kind of merit that elite college admission officers consider in making admission decisions."

Li no doubt faces a difficult road in proving discrimination, given that elite colleges turn down many stellar applicants, but his complaint has touched a nerve.

"[T]here can be good reasons for the disproportionately low acceptance rates for many Asians," one self-identified Yale student wrote on the online news site Inside Higher Ed, discussing Li's case. "Top-tier schools...look not only for good grades but for an interesting student who will bring something of value to the community."

That sounds a lot like what admissions officers say, but there's a whiff of something else, too. The less-pleasant subtext is what Li's complaint is all about.

This essay, distributed by the Featurewell service, originally appeared in the Boston Globe.