Expert Commentary

Selective colleges often pick white students over similarly qualified Asian Americans, analysis suggests

Researchers find differences in admission rates were driven partly by policies prioritizing legacy applicants, extracurricular activities and geographic diversity.

(Image generated by artificial intelligence system DALL.E 2 with directions from Carmen Nobel.)

Asian American students were 28% less likely to get into selective U.S. colleges than white Americans with similar test scores, grade-point averages and extracurricular activities, a new working paper suggests.

The disparity is particularly pronounced for students of South Asian descent. Their odds of admission were 49% lower than their similarly qualified white peers, researchers learned after analyzing nearly 700,000 undergraduate applications submitted to a subset of the nation’s most exclusive schools over five years.

U.S. students of East Asian or Southeast Asian ancestry were 17% less likely to be accepted than white U.S. students.

A big factor driving differences in admission rates: selective colleges’ preference for students who are the children of alumni, known as legacy students, coauthors Sharad Goel, a professor of public policy of Harvard Kennedy School, and Josh Grossman, a Ph.D. candidate studying computational social science at Stanford University, told The Journalist’s Resource in a joint interview.

Historically, legacy applicants have tended to be white. When Goel, Grossman and their colleagues looked specifically at applicants with the highest standardized test scores, they discovered almost 12% of white Americans had legacy status, as did about 7% of Hispanic Americans and just under 6% of Black Americans.

High-scoring Asian Americans were least likely to be legacies — about 3.5% were.

“High-scoring white applicants are three to six times more likely to have legacy status than high-scoring Asian American applicants, suggesting white applicants disproportionately benefit from a boost in admission rates afforded to those with legacy status,” the researchers write.

Affirmative action and the ‘Asian penalty’

The paper’s authors are not disclosing the number or names of schools they studied. They do note the institutions have low acceptance rates, meaning they reject most applicants, and high yield rates, indicating the majority of accepted students choose to enroll.

Goel and Grossman say they started studying applicants two years ago with the goal of determining whether there’s merit to longstanding allegations that the country’s most selective institutions appear to set the bar for entry higher for Asian applicants, imposing what’s commonly referred to as the “Asian penalty.”

At the time, two lawsuits challenging race-based affirmative action at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were making their way through the U.S. court system. Students for Fair Admissions, the national organization that brought the lawsuits, alleged the practice gave Black, Hispanic and Native American applicants an edge in the admissions process but harmed Asian applicants.

On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited colleges and universities nationwide from considering race or ethnicity when choosing students, except at military academies.

Goel and Grossman urge journalists to help audiences understand how the affirmative action ban and higher education policies that benefit white students are affecting and will affect Asian enrollment. It’s important journalists don’t conflate the two issues, they add.

In addition to raising concerns about prioritizing legacy students, the new paper also raises questions about whether colleges should continue focusing on applicants’ extracurricular activities and strive to draw students from various parts of the country.

The analysis shows Asian Americans participated less often in high school sports and other activities outside the classroom, compared with white Americans. Asian Americans also were less likely to attend high school in rural areas or in less populated states such as Montana, Wyoming and Vermont.

“It’s not affirmative action keeping Asian American students from these selective colleges — it’s things like legacy admissions and geography, sports,” Goel says. “By saying we’re going to value things like legacy status and geographic diversity, we are pretty directly giving a boost to white students. It’s a predictable boost.”

Balancing competing education goals

The new paper, released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, builds on earlier scholarship that spotlights ways college admissions practices reinforce racial inequities.

Institutions must balance many competing goals when deciding who to include in a new, incoming class of students, explained education scholar OiYan Poon, who did not participate in this study but has spent more than a decade researching U.S. college admission policies. She is co-director of the College Admissions Futures Co-Laborative at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Poon pointed out that institutional priorities generally include building a successful athletic program, maintaining relationships with alumni and donors, maintaining relationships with high schools, improving the geographic diversity of the student body and balancing the annual budget.

“Note that all of the competing goals I listed inherently privilege white students (e.g., student athletes are nearly 90% white),” she wrote in an email to The Journalist’s Resource.

Examining patterns among applicants

The researchers examined a total of 685,709 applications that 292,795 Asian American and white American students sent to a subset of selective schools through a national postsecondary application platform. They obtained data on applications submitted from the 2015-16 application cycle to the 2019-20 application cycle.

All 292,795 students included in the study graduated from U.S. high schools and, on average, took four Advanced Placement tests, reported completing 3,236 hours of extracurricular activities and earned standardized test scores equivalent to a 32 on the ACT college-entrance exam.

The average ACT score for all U.S. high school graduates in 2021 was 20.3, with a maximum score of 36, according to the  National Center for Education Statistics.

While the dataset does not include colleges’ admissions decisions, the national application portal tracks whether and when high schools use it to send an official transcript to a specific college. The researchers note these transcript submissions are a “highly accurate” indicator a student has enrolled at the school.

As an additional check, the researchers matched a random sample of 5,000 applicants from their study pool to the National Student Clearinghouse database. The Clearinghouse collects enrollment data from higher education institutions across the U.S.

Goel and Grossman say their intention is not to call out specific schools. Instead, they aim to call attention to problematic patterns that appear to be common among colleges and universities that are toughest to get into.

“One of our overarching goals is to improve the admissions process going forward,” Goel says. “We are trying to equip university administrators, policymakers and legislators with the information they need to make these types of choices.” 

Sabina Tomkins, a computational scientist and assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan, and Lindsay Page, the Annenberg Associate Professor of Education Policy at Brown University, also are coauthors of the paper, “The Disparate Impacts of College Admissions Policies on Asian American Applicants.”

Asian Americans and extracurricular activities

Grossman notes that besides legacy preferences, several other admissions practices seem to benefit white Americans to the detriment of Asian Americans. For example, the selective schools he and his colleagues studied appear to exhibit geographic preferences.

The institutions were less likely to admit students from states with large proportions of Asian American applicants such as California and Washington, Grossman and his colleagues write.

Generally speaking, many U.S. colleges and universities seek geographic diversity, aiming to draw students from across the country and globe. Last year, some Ivy League schools started ramping up recruitment in rural America, Christopher Rim, the CEO of an education and college admissions consulting firm in New York City, wrote in Forbes magazine in December.

However, 1% of the Asian American applicants included in this new study graduated from high schools in rural communities, compared with 5% of white Americans, the analysis shows.

A significant emphasis on extracurricular activities, including student clubs and sports, also appears to benefit white Americans over Asian Americans. Asian American students reported participating much less often in extracurricular activities. The median number of hours they reported doing extracurricular activities during their four years of high school was 2,975, compared with 3,384 hours for white students.

When the researchers looked specifically at sports participation, the difference was even bigger. The median number of hours Asian Americans were involved in athletic activities was 240 over four years — less than one-third the median number of hours for white students.

Advice for journalists

Grossman says he and his colleagues aren’t implying selective schools are trying to limit or block Asian Americans. But their analysis does raise questions about equity in college admissions.

He urges journalists to ask college administrators why they continue giving legacy students special treatment.

“The defense a lot of schools provide for legacy admissions is quite vague — it encourages donations and that money is important for students who otherwise couldn’t attend the university [because] they need the financial aid,” Grossman says.

He suggests pressing officials for detailed answers, and investigating whether abandoning legacy preferences would actually hurt colleges or lower-income students.

“Really question schools,” he adds. “If legacy admissions were to be eliminated, how much would they really suffer? And ask donors: Would a donor continue donating if it was eliminated? Is there a substitute that would work?”

Poon, the education scholar, stressed the importance of journalists recognizing that the disparities revealed in this new paper were not caused by affirmative action.

“On the contrary,” she wrote, “I worry that without race-conscious admissions such disparities could widen.”

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