According to research from Princeton University, students who identify as Asian must score, on average, 140 points higher on the SAT (out of 1600) than whites to have the same chance of admission to private colleges. They must score 450 points higher on the SAT than African-Americans. This is the “Asian Tax” that some refer to and, while this research’s direct quantification of bias might be interesting, the fact that Asians have to do better academically than others to get admitted into selective US colleges shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anyone somewhat familiar with college admissions.
This is a particularly hot debate right now due to the SFFA v. Harvard case that is currently pending in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts and, many think, is likely to be seen by the US Supreme Court. See the article links below to learn more about this case. The US Supreme Court has held in the past that explicit race-based biases in college admissions is not permitted. But colleges have historically been able to work around the Court’s rulings by avoiding explicit race-based quotas and by arguing that their admissions committees evaluate applicants holistically, taking into consideration a range of both academic and more intangible non-academic factors. The colleges’ argument, in essence, states: “Asians are, on average, academically high-achieving, but are also, on average, lower-achieving non-academically, and this accounts for the discrepancy in studies that focus too much on standardized test scores.”
Many elite US colleges argue that in order to maintain a rich-learning environment, they need to ensure a diverse student body and that includes, in part, racial diversity. They argue that they make an effort to achieve this racial-diversity in admissions based on “race-neutral” factors like income but cannot be completely blind to race to achieve a healthy level of racial diversity. This argument was supported by the US Supreme Court’s recent June 2013 ruling on this issue, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. In Fisher, the Court held that universities’ admissions decisions need not be blind to race if the university can “convincingly prove that no workable race-neutral alternatives produce the educational benefits of diversity” consistent with the University’s educational mission.
This debate is of utmost important to the team at Uni Prep because it directly impacts our students, who primarily consist of Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American students, for two reasons. First, our students and their coaches, need to be aware of the reality of their situation. When our students and coaches are building college lists and look at admissions statistics of different colleges, such as average ACT & SAT scores, they need to adjust these population-wide statistics to reflect the numbers for Asian and International applicants. Second, we all need to advocate on behalf of the Asian community to reform what appears on its face may be a discriminatory system.
While there isn’t space in this post to fully address Uni Prep’s view on this debate, in short, we understand the argument in favor of racial diversity on college campuses and support the argument that some type of affirmative action in admissions is required to achieve some level of diversity. However, we believe that the extent to which admissions preferences currently disadvantage Asians is not acceptable especially given the strong evidence that they disadvantage white applicants much less than they do Asians. Even assuming for the sake of argument that that Asian applicants are less non-academically competitive, on average, than white applicants, any difference in “non-academic achievement” appears to be disproportionate to the discrepancy seen in the admissions numbers. As recently as 60 years ago elite US college admissions severely discriminated against American Jews, and this history of discrimination is repeating itself today with Asian Americans.This state of affairs is not acceptable.
Despite the lengthy discussion above, it will take significant time to resolve the legal issues at hand. In the meantime, it is imperative for Asian students to acknowledge how the system currently works and respond accordingly.
If you are Asian and applying to top US colleges, then the most useful insights to take away from this situation are:
- You need to score higher academically, on both your GPA and standardized tests, because Asian applicants are currently judged at a higher standard for the time being.
- You need to show that you are also non-academically high-achieving, which doesn’t simply mean being first chair in orchestra or editor-in-chief of the newspaper. At selective US colleges, admissions officers appear to have a bias against what they consider “one-dimensional” Asian applicants: those who seem to only focus on grades and test scores. To learn more about what we mean by non-academically high-achieving, check out our blog post on which clubs are best to join and not join and another blog post that explains the difference between a Spike and good extracurriculars.
The Spike Lab’s Spike Coaching program is designed to help students address the latter insight: supporting students’ efforts to develop an impressive non-academic candidacy profile. We are particularly focused on international students in East Asia because that is where the need is the most pronounced. This is where University admissions is almost completely based on academics (i.e. entrance exams), and students have to work against a strong cultural norm to focus primarily on non-academic achievement.
If you want to learn more about how to overcome the so-called “Asian Tax”, then click here or contact us to set up a consultation session. If you’re a current student/parent and want to learn more about how the Asian Tax impacts you, then you should set up a concierge session to do so.
Lastly consider the following articles, papers and books to delve deeper into this debate on your own:
- NYTimes Article: Affirmative Action Battle Has a New Focus: Asian-Americans
- Harvard Crimson Op-Ed response to NYTimes Article: Asian Americans Are Not Tools
- The New Yorker Article: The Uncomfortable Truth About Affirmative Action and Asian-Americans
- Paper: Thinking Hard about Race-Neutral Admissions, Richard Sander & Aaron Danielson
- Book: No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, Thomas J. Espenshade & Alexandria Walton Radford