Asian Americans Less Likely to be Accepted to Selective Colleges than White Students

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Asian Americans face a significant admissions disadvantage at highly selective colleges and universities compared to their White peers, according to a new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The working paper, “The Disparate Impacts of College Admissions Policies on Asian American Applicants,” is based on 685,709 applications from Asian American and White students submitted to a group of selective U.S. higher education institutions over five application cycles, starting in the 2015-2016 academic year. It is the first study in nearly 25 years to track college admissions disparities between Asian American and White applicants.

According to the findings, Asian American students who applied to these top institutions were 28 percent less likely to be accepted than their White peers, despite having similar test scores, grade point averages, and extracurricular activities.

The research also looked at the admission differences within Asian American groups and found that South Asian students had a 49 percent lower chance of getting into selective colleges than White students. Meanwhile, the gap between White students and those from East Asia was 17 percent.

Whether Asian American students are treated unfairly due to race-based admissions has been a subject of ongoing debate and played a central role in the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to prohibit affirmative action in higher education.

However, the study’s authors say that affirmative action and admissions gaps between Asian American and White students are two “conceptually distinct” issues.

“During the time period we consider, institutions could have admitted Asian American applicants at rates comparable to similarly qualified [W]hite students while still giving preference to applicants from groups underrepresented in higher education,” the authors state.

Instead, they attribute the disparities to White applicants being significantly more likely to benefit from a legacy advantage than Asian applicants, particularly those of South Asian origin. Furthermore, even after controlling for observable student characteristics, the report found that colleges were less likely to admit students from geographical regions with a higher proportion of Asian applicants.

“Our results shed light on past admissions choices and their consequences for Asian American college applicants,” the authors write. “Now that affirmative action is legally prohibited, institutions will need to reconsider how applicants are evaluated in order to ensure equitable admissions processes and to maintain diverse campuses.”