Report: Colleges don’t penalize Asian American applicants

Study concludes the students wouldn’t fare better under test-only admissions



A recent report challenges the contention that colleges hold Asian American applicants to a higher bar — sometimes described as the “Asian penalty.”

That contention anchors lawsuits against several elite universities, including Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The lawsuits argue Asian American students would realize higher acceptance rates if schools prioritized test scores and academic achievement, rather than rely on holistic reviews that consider applicants’ backgrounds, experiences, attributes and the contributions they might make to the campus community.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the consideration of race, among a variety of factors, in college admissions. However, a group suing campuses on behalf of rejected Asian American and white applicants contends holistic reviews enable colleges to conceal quotas that treat race as the key factor.

“Strict scrutiny has proven to be no match for concerted discrimination hidden behind the veil of ‘holistic’ admissions,” wrote attorneys for Students for Fair Admissions in their suit against UNC. “Although UNC-Chapel Hill claims to use an applicant’s race and ethnicity only as one of many factors within its ‘holistic’ system, statistical and other evidence establishes that race is a dominant factor in admissions decisions to the detriment of white and Asian-American applicants.”

Conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the report, “Selective Bias: Asian Americans, Test Scores, and Holistic Admissions,” found no strong evidence of discrimination against Asian American applicants. While their acceptance rates are lower than other racial and ethnic groups, the Georgetown researchers said Asian American students are more likely to apply to highly selective colleges, regardless of their test scores.

For example, among students who scored 1300 or above on the SAT, 65% of Asian American students applied to one of the most selective colleges in the country, compared to 50% of non-Asian American students. Among students who scored below 1300, 12% of Asian American students still applied to the most selective colleges, compared to only 5% of non-Asian American students. Since more Asian American students apply to selective colleges, they’re more apt to be turned down, which is not evidence of bias, according to the report.

The Georgetown researchers point out that Asian American college students are not all the same, saying that nearly half attend public campuses that admit most applicants and 40% have standardized test scores that are below average. “Rather than artificially suppressing the number of Asian American students, a holistic admissions approach actually seems to benefit many of these applicants. In our admissions simulation, one in five of the Asian American students attending these colleges would not have been admitted under a test-only admissions policy,” states the report.

In their analysis, the researchers said even if colleges did not consider race, legacy status, athletics, extracurricular activities, academic interests, ability to pay, GPA and other academic achievements, likelihood of attendance, or anything else that goes into admissions besides test scores, Asian American enrollment still would not change much.

In its long-running lawsuit against Harvard on behalf of rejected Asian American applicants, Students for Fair Admissions maintained the Ivy League school placed an illegal limit on academically superior Asian American applicants to increase admissions of less-qualified whites and minorities. Harvard won the suit in U.S. District Court in 2019, a ruling upheld last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals. The case has been appealed to the Supreme Court, which has not thus far taken it up.

In the 2020 ruling, federal Judge Allison D. Burroughs acknowledged some Harvard applicants received a slight edge if they were top athletes, children of donors or alums, legacies, minorities or residents of an underrepresented area. But the judge also noted that these edges — called “tips” by Harvard admissions — were awarded to other applicants for other reasons.

“The effect of African American and Hispanic racial identity on an applicant’s probability of admission has been estimated at a significantly lower magnitude than tips offered to recruited athletes, and is comparable to tips for legacies, applicants on the dean’s or director’s interest lists, children of faculty or staff,” wrote Burroughs. “Moreover, other tips in the admissions process, like so many facets of modern-day American life, disproportionately benefit individuals in the majority and more affluent group.”

A Duke economist who served as an expert witness for Asian students in the Harvard suit faulted the Georgetown study. In a critique provided by Students for Fair Admissions, Peter Arcidiacono wrote, “The big claim of Asians being minimally hurt by holistic admissions is clearly false. Holistic admissions hurts Asians even in the absence of racial preferences or legacy preferences because of their comparative strength on academics.”

In response, a Georgetown spokeswoman said, “While some people, in looking at our report, have focused on the simulation of test scores, we think the other findings in the report are just as important and clarifying of our finding that there is no strong evidence that Asian American students are facing discrimination in admissions to selective colleges. First, the chances of an Asian American applicant gaining acceptance to Harvard has changed at the same rate as the chances of admittance of every other applicant. Also, Asian American students apply at much greater frequency to selective colleges than applicants of any other race or ethnicity. Given the sheer volume of applications, it should not be a surprise that the rejection rate of Asian American applicants is also higher. But that is not evidence of discrimination.”