In the past two days, two news items concerning Asian Americans and higher education have made national news. Regarding the first, as I’ve explained before when it comes to Asian Americans being portrayed as the “model minority,” this image may be intended as a compliment in some ways, but ultimately, such perceptions about universal Asian American success only serve to hurt those who do not fit into that idealistic portrayal.
To reinforce this idea, the College Board has just released a comprehensive study entitled “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Fact, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight” that, as Inside Higher Education notes, lauds Asian Americans for their notable achievements but also details several major problems associated with treating all Asian Americans as “model” students:
The report suggests that while Asian-American students have achieved notable successes on admissions tests such as the SAT and admission rates at highly selective institutions, only a subset enjoys such accomplishments. Many other students lag, but they are excluded from support programs and the public discussion about diversifying higher education because of the success of others. . . .
The report comes at a time that many talented Asian-American high school students — and the guidance counselors who advise them — fear that the most competitive institutions are discriminating against them. The report also comes at a time that the success of some Asian Americans is viewed as license to mock them in ways that strike many as insensitive at best and racist at worst.
Just as important, the report also describes social class and immigration-nativity differences among various Asian Americans that pose a challenge to many who try to access higher education, with many elementary and high school teachers and counselors minimizing the struggles that many students experience in their studies.
This report serves as a useful resource and reminder that while Asian Americans share many characteristics in common, we cannot automatically assume that there is a “universal” Asian American experience or situation that all members of this category fit into. In other words, contrary to one of the most enduring stereotypes applies to Asian Americans, we are not all alike.
In the second development, you may recall that in 2006, an Asian American applicant filed a federal complaint against Princeton University after he was rejected, claiming racial discrimination. As Inside Higher Education reports, this complaint has now prompted the U.S. Justice Department to expand its investigation into how Princeton treats Asian American applicants as a whole:
A department spokesman stressed that converting the investigation did not mean that officials had come to any conclusions about the original complaint. But at the very least, the shift suggests that the government does not view the complaint as frivolous. . . .
Cass Cliatt, a spokeswoman for Princeton, said that the university was pleased by the broadening of the investigation. “We actually welcome the opportunity to talk about this,” Cliatt said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about how colleges and universities use the process. We’re happy to explain to OCR how we do this.”
As the Insider Higher Ed article points out, it appears that the Justice Department is interested in using this Asian American applicant’s complaint against Princeton to critically examine affirmative action in general. From a political standpoint, it is not really a surprising move since the overriding presumption has always been that the present administration is not a big fan of affirmative action.
I am on record as supporting many forms of affirmative action and that is is probably inevitable that some applicants of any race/ethnicity with “higher” objective qualifications will get rejected in favor of other applicants with “lower” objective qualifications.
At the same time, I also feel that as long as minimum standards are met and that the goals of such affirmative action programs are to create a racially and ethnically diverse class and to give students from less privileged backgrounds equal access to a college education than more privileged applicants, that such affirmative action programs still have a place in college admissions and other areas of American society.
Nonetheless and similar to Princeton’s reaction, I welcome this inquiry into Princeton’s admissions practice because it allows Princeton to delineate in detail how it goes about making its admissions decisions and presumably, will show that objective qualifications are just one set of criteria for admissions.
Hopefully the inquiry will show that Princeton does not systematically discriminate against Asian American applicants but if it does, then I certainly support Princeton (and any other college that is equally guilty) being held accountable.
We all know that affirmative action is still one of the most contentious and divisive issues in American society and particularly among Asian Americans. However, I still feel that there can be a middle ground where Asian Americans get fair and just consideration when it comes to their admissions (with objective qualifications being an important but not the only criteria) and also where qualified applicants from less privileged backgrounds get access to a college degree as well.
In other words, I do not believe that college admissions — or American society as a whole — is necessarily a zero-sum proposition. Instead, I feel that the resources are there to create opportunities for everyone who is deserving.