Do Asian American applicants lose out to diversity push at elite colleges?

The likelihood of attending Harvard has declined at the same rate for Asian Americans as it has for all other students
By: | July 15, 2021
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There is no strong evidence of bias against Asian American applicants by highly selective colleges seeking to racially balance the student body, Georgetown University researchers say.

Students for Fair Admissions, which argues that Asian American students face discriminatory admissions policies at elite institutions, has sued Harvard University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Texas at Austin and Yale University in recent years.

Acceptance rates at highly selective colleges are indeed lower for Asian Americans compared to other racial and ethnic groups. But that’s likely because Asian American students are also much more likely to apply—even with lower SAT scores, according to “Asian Americans, Test Scores, and Holistic Admissions” by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Ultimately, the data do not support claims that selective colleges manipulate the number of Asian Americans admitted to achieve a predetermined racial mix on campus, said Anthony P. Carnevale, the Center’s director and lead author of the study.

“If we used test-based merit as the singular admissions requirement, the gain for Asian American applicants would be marginal,” Carnevale said. “But on the flip side, 21% of Asian American applicants who were previously admitted would no longer qualify.”

The likelihood of attending Harvard, for instance, has declined at the same rate for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as it has for students of all other racial and ethnic groups, according to data from 2000 to 2018.

And because Harvard’s enrollment has been relatively stable, Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ chances of attending should have dropped more quickly if they were being disproportionately excluded, the report found.


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As for the SAT, 12% of Asian American students who scored below 1300 “took a chance” by applying to a highly selective college while only 5% of non–Asian American students took the same leap, the report said.

Here are some of the report’s other key findings:

  • The number of Asian American and Pacific Islander students at the 90 most selective colleges in the U.S. has kept pace with their growing share of the four-year college-going population.
  • Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders hold 18% of all seats at the country’s most selective colleges but comprise only 6% of the college-going population.
  • Between 1999 and 2018, Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ share of enrollments at the most selective colleges grew by 4% even while their enrollment share at all four-year colleges grew by just 2%.
  • 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.
  • The share of college students who hold SAT scores above 1350 who are Asian American and Pacific Islander remained consistent at 12% in 2000, 2008 and 2012.
  • In 2016, Asian American and Pacific Islander college students held 15% of all SAT scores above 1350, and their share of seats at the most selective colleges changed commensurately.