Skip to main content

Affirmative Action and Breaking the 'Bamboo Ceiling' for Asian Americans

This article originally appared in the Los Angeles Times on June 13, 2013.

By Carolyn Chen

Any day now, the Supreme Court will announce its decision in the Fisher vs. University of Texas case, which could invalidate the use of race-conscious policies in college admissions. Some Asian American groups, such as the 80-20 Education Foundation, have been among the most vocal and visible in opposing what's broadly termed affirmative action. They believe getting rid of race considerations will work to the advantage of Asian Americans, who on average have held more extracurricular leadership positions and have higher test scores and grade-point averages than whites, yet have the lowest acceptance rate to elite private universities.

They are not wrong to worry about Asian admissions. The circumstantial evidence for a "bamboo" ceiling on Asian admissions is mounting. According to a 2009 study by sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford, Asian Americans must score 140 points higher on the SAT to have the same chance at admission to private colleges as whites. College enrollment trends show that the percentage of Asian Americans in many Ivies has stayed flat — between 15% and 18% — in the last 20 years, even though the college-age population of Asian Americans has doubled.

Still, affirmative action is a red herring for those who are truly concerned about discrimination against Asians in higher education.

The great myth surrounding Fisher vs. University of Texas is that outlawing affirmative action would make college admissions meritocratic; that if race were ruled out of bounds, admissions would then be based solely on test scores and grades. It's just not that simple.

Universities' institutional interests often conflict with the meritocratic goal of admitting the most academically promising students. And that's not primarily because of race. Schools are seeking all kinds of talents and diversity in their incoming classes; they talk about looking at the "whole person" as they evaluate students, and how each "admit" will contribute to the community of freshmen. And part of what colleges are considering has to do with their reputation and financial bottom line.

Universities, especially the top tier, have always given affirmative action to children of alumni, children of wealthy donors, students from prep schools, athletes who can help the football team win, students who can pay full tuition and those with connections to political or cultural power. Those are the groups whose admission ensures that a school can pay its bills, raise faculty salaries, build more buildings, create more centers of study and so on.

For example, Daniel Golden's book, "The Price of Admission," reveals that children of alumni are accepted at Harvard at a rate that is nearly quadruple that of other students, and that the children of wealthy donors get in with test scores and grades far below those of other admitted students.

Such preferences are deeply ingrained in the system, though no one calls them affirmative action. They tend to reduce the chances of applicants from poor or immigrant families and even mainstream middle-class families. This means that admission to elite schools is more like gaining membership into an exclusive club than a meritocracy.

If Asians who are "smart" are being discriminated against, it's because they, like most Americans, don't also tend to fall emphatically enough into the categories "wealthy, cultured and connected." There is no financial or institutional incentive to admit Asian Americans just because of their plentiful achievements; moreover, there is strong reason to believe that the "club" fears becoming "too Asian."

To be sure, it's possible that banning race considerations would help some Asian Americans in their pursuit of selective schools. In theory, the seats that were occupied by students admitted primarily under race-conscious policies would be available to others, particularly high-achieving Asian Americans. But opponents seem to forget that affirmative action actually benefits Asian American groups, as it has all minorities, in creating more diversity overall. That's particularly true now in the case of groups such as Southeast Asians, who are underrepresented in higher education.

The fundamental problem is not that blacks and Latinos are taking seats from Asian Americans. Real justice and equality at elite universities will not come by opposing affirmative action. There is a cost, in both political power and principle, to doing so. Asian Americans would be better off making common cause with other minorities who also face obstacles entering elite institutions.

No matter what the court decides in Fisher, Asian Americans should demand that colleges make admissions policies and data much more open and transparent. The mystery surrounding college admissions serves nobody well. It makes parents and students frantic, and it breeds cynicism in the broader public about the role and value of higher education in general. But if colleges spoke more forthrightly about their admissions processes, they could enlist the public in a spirited, principled debate about who gets in — one that would galvanize a system of higher education that is durable, fair and worthy of the American dream.

- Carolyn Chen is an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University.