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The Washington Post

Learning to Stand Out Among the Standouts
By Jay Mathews, March 22, 2005

Robert Shaw, an educational consultant based in Garden City, N.Y., was working with a very bright Asian student who feared the Ivy League would not notice her at a competitive high school in New Jersey, where 22 percent of the students were Asian American, and she was only in the top 20 percent of her high-scoring class.

The Washington PostSo, Shaw said, she and her parents took his daring advice to change their address. They moved 10 miles north, where the average SAT score was 300 points lower and there were almost no Asians.

It worked, Shaw said. His client became class valedictorian, and got into Yale and MIT.

"As admissions strategists, our experience is that Asian Americans must meet higher objective standards, such as SAT scores and GPAs, and higher subjective standards than the rest of the applicant pool," he said. "Our students need to do a lot more in order to stand out."

Asian American students have higher average SAT scores than any other government-monitored ethnic group, and selective colleges routinely reject them in favor of African American, Hispanic and even white applicants with lower scores in order to have more diverse campuses and make up for past discrimination.

Many Asian Americans and some educators wonder: Is that fair? Why shouldn't young people of Asian descent have more of an advantage in the selective college admissions system for being violin-playing, science-fair winning, high-scoring achievers?

"Chinese and all Asian Americans are penalized for their values on academic excellence by being required to have a higher level of achievement, academic and non-academic, than any other demographic group," said Ed Chin, a New Jersey physician who has campaigned for years for a change in college admissions procedures.

Yet, Chin notes, Harvard humanities professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. recently estimated that two-thirds of blacks at Harvard are not descendants of American slaves but the middle-class children of relatively recent immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. "Why should they deserve admission with lowered standards -- relatively speaking -- based solely on the color of their skin over a high-achieving Asian American living in a Chinatown ghetto or a black ghetto, or a poor white from the slums of New York City?" Chin asked.

At some selective colleges, the percentage of Asians on the admittance list is reportedly significantly lower than the percentage of Asians who applied. But colleges usually do not release the ethnic breakdown of their applicants, so there has been little research on the matter.

Stanford University and Brown University, however, studied their admissions data in the late 1980s and found enough evidence of cultural bias and stereotypes to alter procedures.

"Since then, the Stanford staff has been very careful to guard against all kinds of bias in the selection process," said Robin Mamlet, Stanford's dean of admissions. For several years, admissions staff members were trained annually on such issues as shyness to be sure as little bias as possible affected the decision process, she said.

About 25 percent of Stanford undergraduates are of Asian descent, higher than most other such similarly selective colleges as Georgetown, 10 percent; Princeton, 12 percent; Yale, 13 percent; and Columbia, 14 percent. But Mamlet said she cannot be sure if Stanford's higher percentage is a result of different admissions procedures or its location in Northern California, with a large population of high-performing Asian Americans. More than 40 percent of undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley, for instance, are of Asian descent.

Harvard admissions director Marlyn McGrath Lewis said: "We have no evidence that our admissions committee disadvantages Asian American applicants." Seventeen percent of its undergraduates are of Asian descent, and the university was cleared in 1990 of alleged racial discrimination against Asians. The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights said whites were admitted at a higher rate but because they included more recruited athletes and children of alumni.

Scholars say Asian cultures tend to emphasize education and say they are not surprised that Asian Americans, who make up 4 percent of the U.S. population, are found in much higher concentrations in selective colleges. In their 1996 book "Beyond the Classroom," Laurence Steinberg, B. Bradford Brown and Sanford M. Dornbusch said that "of all the demographic factors we studied in relation to school performance, ethnicity was the most important. . . . In terms of school achievement, it is more advantageous to be Asian than to be wealthy, to have non-divorced parents, or to have a mother who is able to stay at home full time."

Many Americans, including some of Asian descent, have grown accustomed to seemingly irrational and unfair admissions decisions by selective colleges and shrug off the Asian numbers as something that can't be helped.

But Arun Mantri, born in India with children at Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, said he thinks the system should change. Asian American applicants' chances "would improve dramatically if race was not used as a factor in admissions, perhaps at the cost of the white applicants, something that only a few selective schools have dared to do," he said.

Victoria Hsiao, who works with Shaw at the admissions strategy firm Ivy Success, said that when she attended Stuyvesant High School in New York, "my Asian friends and I all tried to make ourselves stand out, as we did not want to be stereotyped as Asians with good grades, playing the piano and doing scientific research." She joined the debate team instead of the math team and got into Cornell.

Shaw said about 40 percent of his clients are Asian, but he tells all that they need to learn about great but lesser-known colleges. "Students can get a quality education at hundreds of colleges throughout the country," he said, "so parents should definitely expand their horizons to other target competitive institutions beyond the Ivy League."

That is not enough for Chin, who compares the limits on Asian admissions to the quotas that Ivy League colleges used to place on Jewish admissions. "There obviously needs to be a change to level the playing field," Chin said. Some estimates put the enrollment of Jews at Harvard as high as 30 percent, he said, "and admissions for them is indeed race and ethnic-group blind."