Letter to the Editor: Asian Americans and college admission standards

Norman Wang

Henry Cao should be commended for addressing the important and controversial topic of affirmative action in college admissions. Asian Americans are a heterogeneous group including Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and others. Due to relatively small numbers, they are often combined. In 2010, the four main racial/ethnic groups in the United States included Caucasian (64 percent), Hispanic (16 percent), African American (12 percent) and Asian (5 percent). Caucasians are often used as the reference group in comparison, as the United States was founded by people of predominantly European descent. They are not only the largest in number, but also wield the most political power. En bloc, Asian Americans have characteristics that distinguish them from the three other groups.

The two most commonly cited reasons for affirmative action are to address past and existing discrimination. Historically, Asian Americans have certainly been the target of racism. The Chinese Exclusion Act, active from 1882 to 1943, has the distinction of being the first piece of federal legislation to completely ban a racial/ethnic group from immigration, thereby effectively isolating Chinese-American citizens from their families still in China. Japanese-American citizens were stripped of their constitutional rights and forcibly relocated and incarcerated in internment camps from 1942 to 1946. During World War II, the Philippines was a commonwealth of the United States, and Filipino Americans who fought in the military were promised citizenship and the same veteran benefits as those who served for the American armed forces. These benefits were withdrawn by Congress in 1946 and to this day, have not been reinstated. These are just some examples.

Elite universities that do not factor racial preferences into admissions, such as California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, generally have Asian-American populations of 30 to 40 percent. In contrast, Ivy League universities that use “holistic” admissions processes that include affirmative action maintain an Asian-American population of around 17 percent while requiring that they perform significantly better on SAT scores and other metrics than the other three racial/ethnic groups. Asian Americans comprised 19 percent of the entering Northwestern University Class of 2017.

Sara Harberson, former associate dean of admissions for the University of Pennsylvania, admitted to a higher achievement bar for Asian Americans in a Los Angeles Times editorial earlier this year. She noted they often do not have a “golden ticket” for admission that includes advantages such as being “recruited athletes, children of alumni, children of donors or potential donors, or students who are connected to the well connected.” She went on to write that they are expected to display academic perfection, and “anything less can become an easy reason for a denial.”

All Americans should champion the opportunity for bright and motivated individuals to succeed. If Asian-American college applicants have the strongest credentials, they should still be held to the same standard as their Caucasian peers, and not higher. Demanding such from a group that has been subject to past discrimination is an injustice and no less than existing discrimination. Unfortunately, admissions at many elite American universities still demonstrate bias against Asian Americans under the banner of affirmative action. This should not be supported. No society has ever benefitted from deliberate subversion of highly talented and productive people.

Norman C. Wang, MD, MS
McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science ‘94
Feinberg School of Medicine ‘98