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Life & Arts

Asian-Americans call for fairer college admissions system

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An Asian-American student and his mother attend a graduation ceremony at Harvard University.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Elite U.S. universities continue to face claims that they discriminate against Asian-American applicants.

     In September, the Asian-American Coalition for Education requested an investigation into why Harvard University rejected an Asian-American applicant from the state of Florida.

     Back in May, the coalition filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, alleging that Harvard holds students of Asian descent to an unfairly high standard. The group, which has more than 60 member organizations, claimed Asian-Americans must do better on standardized exams than other minorities, such as African-Americans and Hispanics. Even getting full marks, the coalition says, is not necessarily enough for an Asian student to get accepted to Ivy League and other top schools.

     The Education Department dismissed the coalition's complaint.

     The Asian-American population in the U.S. has doubled over the past two decades, according to Yukong Zhao, who chairs the coalition. Yet he says the ratio of Asian-Americans admitted to elite colleges -- including eight Ivy League schools on the East Coast -- has held steady at 14-18%. 

      In Zhao's view, the current selection system violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans racial discrimination.

High marks and more

A high proportion of Asian-American students do well on standardized tests, such as the SAT. Some U.S. colleges may be concerned that putting too much stock in scores would result in fewer opportunities for students of other ethnic backgrounds.

     Typically, in addition to exam scores, applicants are required to submit their high school transcripts, recommendations from teachers, an essay and a resume. Records of volunteering and extracurricular activities are a plus. Admissions committees review all of this information before making their decisions. 

     The coalition's latest call for a probe concerns a student who not only scored nearly full marks on the SAT, but also demonstrated an outstanding record of extracurricular activities, including leadership of a volunteer group and a school swimming team. The student was unable to get into Harvard and other Ivy League schools. The student's father argues that rejecting such a candidate on the basis of race is not the American way.

     Harvard is confident that its admissions policies fully comply with the law.

     Robert Iuliano, Harvard University's vice president and general counsel, issued a statement saying the school takes an individual, holistic approach to assessing each applicant. The school's goal, he said, is to create "a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations."

     Like other elite universities, Harvard does give legacy preferences -- up to around 15% of students are children of alumni and school personnel. This leaves colleges open to accusations that their admissions systems are not fully transparent.

     At the same time, some say affirmative action policies -- intended to ensure discriminated minorities have access to opportunities -- put not only Asian-Americans but also white students at a disadvantage. Zhao proposes a new system in which preferential treatment would be granted based on a student's financial circumstances, rather than ethnicity. 

 

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