Do Elite Private Colleges Discriminate Against Asian Students?

Students of different races have varying odds of admission to elite private colleges, a study finds.


Mitchell Chang, a professor of higher education at UCLA, said Asians have long complained about the "penalty" they face when applying to colleges. But Espenshade's documentation of a threefold difference for similarly qualified students at elite private universities "is stunning. Really worrisome." Chang said Asian students might be disproportionately less likely to participate in certain kinds of extracurricular activities and that many Asian parents push their children to apply to famous "brand name" elite schools. But he insisted that the Asian applicant pool is nevertheless diverse. He fears that college admissions officers might be stereotyping Asians and saying to themselves: "'We don't want another academic nerd.' "

Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, noted, however, that other recent studies have shown that many well-qualified students who come from low-income, African-American, or Hispanic families don't apply to elite schools. So the few who do apply are likely to have better odds.

Espenshade's research indicates that eliminating affirmative action policies would most likely reduce the number of Hispanic and African-American students and racial diversity on campuses. Some schools that have eliminated affirmative action policies have seen significant changes in their student demographics. At UC-Berkeley, for example, 42 percent of undergraduates are Asian. Fewer than one third are white. While African-Americans make up 14 percent of the general population in Michigan, they account for only 6 percent of the undergraduates at the University of Michigan.

Espenshade found that when comparing applicants with similar grades, scores, athletic qualifications, and family history for seven elite private colleges and universities:

  • Whites were three times as likely to get fat envelopes as Asians.
  • Hispanics were twice as likely to win admission as whites.
  • African-Americans were at least five times as likely to be accepted as whites.
  • Athletes were more than twice as likely to get in as non-athletes with similar qualifications.
  • Students from .private high schools were twice as likely to receive acceptance letters as similar students from regular public high schools.
  • Students from highly regarded public and private high schools were three times as likely to win admission as others.
  • Students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes were about twice as likely to get in as students in the next 10 percent.
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