In 2012, the American Psychological Association (APA) published an online essay about discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions. Penned by a psychology graduate student named Yi-Chen (Jenny) Wu, the essay argued that such discrimination might make American teenagers of Asian origin hesitant to identify as such and thereby negatively affect their racial and ethnic identity development and mental health. At the time, the APA described the subject of Wu’s essay as a “relevant psychosocial and psychological health and well-being topic.”
A decade later, the organization no longer believes this.
Last August, the APA filed an amicus brief in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, cases (awaiting a Supreme Court decision) in which the plaintiffs allege that Harvard and UNC’s race-based admissions policies penalize Asian American applicants; but the APA’s 43-page brief didn’t mention these allegations, nor did it mention Wu’s 2012 essay. The brief instead detailed the supposed “stresses of discrimination, prejudice, and underrepresentation, and the compounding impact of isolation” that psychologists believed a strike-down of race-based admissions would have on minorities “underrepresented” in higher education, namely blacks and Latinos.
The APA shared Wu’s essay during a time in which researchers, the mainstream media, and even high school guidance counselors more readily acknowledged that Asian American students face racial stereotyping when applying to college because they’re “overrepresented” in higher education. (The organization noted in its brief that while 66.2 percent of high school graduates in 2019 enrolled in an institution of higher learning following graduation, the enrollment rate for Asian American students was 89.9 percent, compared with 66.9 percent of white students; 63.4 percent of Latino students; and only 50.7 percent of black students.) College admissions officers stereotype Asian American applicants by imposing higher admissions standards on them and by giving them poor personality ratings.
Wu noted as much in her essay. She referenced a 2009 study that found Asian American students require SAT scores 140 points higher than their white counterparts to be admitted to an elite school. Wu also referenced a 2006 Inside Higher Ed article that described how high school guidance counselors make Asian American students appear less stereotypically “Asian” when writing letters of recommendation. In one instance, a guidance counselor wrote, “Rachel, for an Asian, has many friends.” “We make those comparisons,” said another, “because we feel it’s the only way we can get through and get our students looked at.” And a third guidance counselor invoked his experience as a former Stanford University admissions officer to confirm that anti-Asian bias in college admissions is real: “There, he said, the office did a study some years ago in which it compared Asian and white applicants with the same overall academic and leadership rankings. The study was only of ‘unhooked kids,’ meaning those with no extra help for being an alumni child or athlete. The study found that comparably qualified white applicants were ‘significantly’ more likely to be admitted than their Asian counterparts.”
Discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions has created an industry of consultants dedicated to helping Asian teenagers hide their racial and ethnic identities and avoid Asian stereotypes—such as aspiring to be a doctor or playing a stringed instrument—when applying to college. Brian Taylor, director of the college admissions counseling firm Ivy Coach, told Buzzfeed in a 2015 interview: “A good portion of our students are Asian, and we tell them right up front, ‘You’re going to face discrimination.’ Our clients aren’t mathletes, they don’t play the violin if they don’t love it, and Mommy’s not forcing them. We would rather them use those hours that they’d be playing the violin to do something that every Asian applicant isn’t doing.” Mimi Doe, who runs Top Tier Admissions, similarly said: “A lot of our work is finding strategic ways for our Indian or Asian clients to break the stereotypes. We set out to help our Indian and Asian candidates who do seem to fall into these typical robotic, soulless stereotypes to zoom in on areas that will set them apart.” Meantime, the tagline of Asian Advantage College Counseling, founded in the early 1990s, is “Beat the Asian quotas!” Its mission statement reads: “It is also the goal of our firm to promote a level playing field in the college applications process while increasing public awareness of the unique challenges faced by Asian-American applicants.”
Asian American families who can’t afford the services of a college admissions counseling firm (packages from Top Tier Admissions, for example, can cost upwards of $40,000) can instead turn to the Princeton Review’s Cracking College Admissions. The book includes a section advising Asian American students, “If you’re given an option, don’t attach a photograph to your application and don’t answer the optional question about your ethnic background. This is especially important if you don’t have an Asian-sounding surname,” and “Don’t say you want to be a doctor, and don’t say you want to major in math or the sciences . . . The point is to distance yourself as much as possible from the stereotype.” (Cracking College Admissions is no longer in print, but used copies can still be purchased.)
When Asian American students are told repeatedly by high school guidance counselors, college admissions consultants, test preparation companies, and elite schools that being of Asian origin is bad, and that they’ll be discriminated against because of it, these students become hesitant, Wu argues in her essay, to identify as “Asian.” This may have a negative impact, she continues, on Asian American teenagers’ racial and ethnic identity development and mental health: “Asians who did not possess a strong racial and ethnic identity rated lower scores on self-actualization and acceptance, reported lower self-esteem, tended to have negative attitudes toward schooling, lower academic achievement, and could not manage race-related stress well.”
And while the APA no longer considers the potential impact of race-conscious admissions on the mental health and well-being of Asian American teenagers “relevant,” the Asian American Coalition for Education—a grassroots alliance of 368 Asian American small businesses and parent groups—does. The coalition cited Wu’s 2012 essay in the amicus brief it filed in Students for Fair Admissions, under a section titled “Harvard’s Discrimination Causes Profound Injury to Asian-American Students At All Levels.” “Only Asian-American children,” the group wrote, “have to hide that they want to be violinists or pianists, or doctors or scientists. Only they are told that it might be fatal to their college admission chances to provide a photograph that reveals their race. This cannot be right—it is horribly wrong.”
The most recent Social Tracking of Asian Americans in the U.S. survey found that only 19 percent of Asian Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 “completely agree that they feel they belong and are accepted.” The left-wing researchers behind the survey attributed this finding to “the invisibility of Asian Americans in our high school and university curricula, as well as in movies, in media, and in leadership.” But what about discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions—a potential cause of distress among Asian youth that the APA acknowledged just ten years ago?
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