Student Achievement

Making Higher Ed. History, Headlines

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 13, 2007 3 min read
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The University of California, widely viewed as the nation’s most selective public university system, quietly made admissions history last spring.

For the first time, Asian-Americans constituted the largest single racial group to receive admission offers across the UC system’s nine undergraduate campuses. Roughly 36 percent of the university’s chosen freshman class for fall 2006 were Asian-American; white students represented 35.6 percent.

Asian-Americans, who make up about 12 percent of California’s population, already were the undergraduate majority at UC Berkeley, UCLA, and other University of California campuses for several years. So news of the systemwide milestone received less attention than the fact that only 96 of the 4,800 students who planned to enroll in the 2006 freshman class at UCLA were African-American, a 30-year low.

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The ‘Other’ Gap

Despite the California numbers, a book published last fall detailing the admissions practices at the nation’s most prestigious private universities reinforced a widespread belief that Asian-Americans are held to higher standards than their white, black, and Hispanic peers. In The Price of Admission, reporter Daniel Golden of The Wall Street Journal dubs Asian-Americans the “new Jews,” referring to admissions policies at Ivy League schools in the first half of the 20th century that discriminated against high-achieving Jewish students.

Mr. Golden makes the case that high-scoring Asian applicants often lose out to lesser-qualified white applicants who have wealth, athletic prowess, or alumni connections.

And in October, Jian Li, a Chinese-American freshman at Yale University with perfect SAT scores and a nearly flawless high school record, filed a federal civil rights complaint over being denied admission to Princeton University. The reason, he argued, was that he is Asian.

In California, given the admissions statistics from last year, the conversation centers around whether Asian-Americans are overrepresented in higher education. Since California voters in 1996 approved Proposition 209, a ban on affirmative action in government hiring and public-university admissions, Asian-American enrollment at UC campuses, already robust, has continued to rise. Black and Hispanic students have lost ground at the more selective campuses, such as Berkeley and Los Angeles.

‘Dig a Lot Deeper’

As a group, Asian-Americans post higher SAT scores and stronger grade point averages in UC’s required high school course sequence, making them eligible for admission at far greater rates than other racial and ethnic groups. In 2003, the most recent year for which data are available, 31.4 percent of Asian-American public high school graduates were eligible for UC, compared with 16.2 percent of whites, 6.5 percent of Latinos, and 6.2 percent of African-Americans, according to a report by the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

Officials of the UC system largely blame the disappointing eligibility rates of blacks and Hispanics on classroom inequities in California, noting that they are more likely to attend inner-city and rural high schools where teachers tend to be less experienced and fewer college-preparatory courses are offered.

A Profile of Freshmen at UC Berkeley

Asian students represented the largest racial group in 2006.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: University of California, Berkeley

But to assume that all Asian-American applicants admitted to the UC system are graduating from high-performing suburban schools is misleading, said Don T. Nakanishi, an education professor at UCLA who directs the Asian American Studies Center there. Many children of Southeast Asian immigrants who were refugees, for example, are benefiting from UC’s consideration of nonacademic factors, such as poverty and overcoming hardship, he said.

“I think what comes across here about the number of Asian-Americans at UC is ‘Hey, look how bright these kids are, look how they’ve taken over these slots that are no longer designated for underrepresented groups under affirmative action,’ ” Mr. Nakanishi said. “You’ve got to dig a lot deeper into the data. It’s more than a bunch of suburban kids who’ve had a lot of advantages and are scoring out of this world.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Making Higher Ed. History, Headlines


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