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December 27, 2011

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To tick the 'Asian' box or not

ASIANS are stereotyped as high achievers and held to higher standards for some college admissions, so Asian Americans increasingly are not ticking the "Asian" box. Jesse Washington reports.

Lanya Olmstead was born in Florida to a Chinese immigrant mother and an American father of Norwegian ancestry. Ethnically, she considers herself half Chinese and half Norwegian. But in applying to Harvard, Olmstead checked only one box for race: white.

"I didn't want to put 'Asian' down," Olmstead says, "because my mom told me there's discrimination against Asians in the application process."

For years, many Asian Americans have been convinced that it's harder for them to gain admission to the top US colleges.

Studies show that Asian Americans meet these colleges' admissions standards far out of proportion to their 6 percent representation in the US population, and that they often need test scores hundreds of points higher than applicants from other ethnic groups to have an equal chance of admission. Critics say these numbers, and the fact that some top colleges with race-blind admissions have double the Asian percentage of Ivy League schools, are prove of discrimination.

The way it works, critics believe, is that Asian Americans are evaluated not as individuals, but against thousands of other ultra-achieving Asians who are stereotyped as boring academic robots.

Now, an unknown number of students are responding to this concern by not identifying themselves as Asian on their applications.

For those with only one Asian parent, whose names don't reveal their heritage, that decision can be fairly easy. Harder are the questions it raises: What's behind the admissions difficulties? What, exactly, is an Asian American - and is being one a choice?

Olmstead is a freshman at Harvard and a member of HAPA, the Half-Asian People's Association. In high school she had a perfect 4.0 grade-point average and scored 2,150 out of a possible 2,400 on the SAT college admission test, which she calls "pretty low."

College applications ask for parent information, so Olmstead knows admissions officers can figure out student background. She wrote "multiracial" on her application.

Still, she would advise students with one Asian parent to "check whatever race is not Asian." "Not to generalize, but a lot of Asians, they have perfect SATs, perfect GPAs, ... so it's hard to let them all in," Olmstead says.

But leaving the Asian box blank felt wrong to Jodi Balfe, a Harvard freshman who was born in South Korea and came to the US at age 3 with her Korean mother and white American father. She checked the box against the advice of her high school guidance counselor, teachers and friends.

"I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of trying to hide half my ethnic background," Balfe says. "It's been a major influence on how I developed as a person. It felt like selling out, like selling too much of my soul.

"I thought admission wasn't worth it. It would be like only half of me was accepted."

Other students, however, feel no conflict between a strong Asian identity and their response to what they believe is injustice.

"If you know you're going to be discriminated against, it's absolutely justifiable to not check the Asian box," says Amalia Halikias, a Yale freshman whose mother was born in America to Chinese immigrants; her father is a Greek immigrant.

Asian stereotype

Immigration from Asian countries was heavily restricted until laws changed in 1965. When the gates finally opened, many arrivals were well-educated, endured hardships to secure more opportunities for their families, and were determined to seize the American dream through work and education.

These immigrants, and their descendants, often demanded that children work as hard as humanly possible to achieve. Parental respect is paramount in Asian culture, so many children have obeyed - and excelled.

"Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best," wrote Amy Chua, half tongue-in-cheek, in her best-seller "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."

Of course, not all Asian Americans fit this stereotype. They are not always obedient hard workers who get top marks. Some embrace American rather than Asian culture. Their economic status, ancestral countries and customs vary, and their forebears may have been rich or poor.

But compared with American society in general, Asian Americans have a much stronger emphasis on intense academic preparation for the few very best schools.

"The whole Tiger Mom stereotype is grounded in truth," says Tao Tao Holmes, a Yale sophomore with a Chinese-born mother and white American father. She did not check "Asian" on her application.

"My math scores aren't high enough for the Asian box," she says. "I say it jokingly, but there's the underlying sentiment of, if I had emphasized myself as Asian, I would have (been expected to) excel more in stereotypically Asian-dominated subjects."

"I was definitely held to a different standard (by my mom), and to different standards than my friends," Holmes says. She sees the same rigorous academic focus among many other students with immigrant parents, even non-Asian ones.

Does Holmes think children of American parents are generally spoiled and lazy by comparison? "That's essentially what I'm trying to say."

Asian students have higher average SAT scores than any other group, including whites. A study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade examined applicants to top colleges from 1997, when the maximum SAT score was 1,600 (today it's 2,400). Espenshade found that Asian Americans needed a 1,550 SAT to have an equal chance of getting into an elite college as white students with 1,410 or black students with 1,100.

Top schools that don't ask about race in admissions process have very high percentages of Asian students. The California Institute of Technology, a private school that chooses not to consider race, is about one-third Asian. (Thirteen percent of California residents have Asian heritage.) The University of California-Berkeley, which is forbidden by state law to consider race in admissions, is more than 40 percent Asian - up from about 20 percent before the law was passed.

Steven Hsu, a physics professor at the University of Oregon and a vocal critic of admissions policies, says there is a clear statistical case that discrimination exists.

Yale, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania declined to make admissions officers available for interviews for this story.

Kara Miller helped review applications for Yale as an admissions office reader, and participated in meetings where admissions decisions were made. She says it often felt like Asians were held to a higher standard.

"Asian kids know that when you look at the average SAT for the school, they need to add 50 or 100 to it. If you're Asian, that's what you'll need to get in," says Miller, now an English professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

Higher standard

Highly selective colleges use much more than SAT scores and grades for evaluation. Major factors include extracurricular activities, community service, leadership, maturity, engagement in learning and overcoming adversity.

Admissions preferences are sometimes given to the children of alumni, the wealthy and celebrities, which is an overwhelmingly white group. Recruited athletes get breaks. Since the top colleges say diversity is crucial to a world-class education, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders also may get in despite lower scores than other applicants.

A college like Yale "could fill their entire freshman class twice over with qualified Asian students or white students or valedictorians," says Rosita Fernandez-Rojo, a former college admissions officer who is now director of college counseling at Rye Country Day School, a private school outside of New York City.

But applicants are not ranked by results of a test, she says - "it's a selection process."

"People are always looking for reasons they didn't get in," she continues. "You can't always know what those reasons are. Sometimes during the admissions process they say, 'There's nothing wrong with that kid. We just don't have room'."


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