Lanya Olmstead was born in Florida to a mother who immigrated from Taiwan and an American father of Norwegian ancestry. Ethnically, she considers herself half Taiwanese and half Norwegian. But when applying to Harvard, Olmstead checked only one box for her race: white.
“I didn’t want to put ‘Asian’ down,” Olmstead said. “Because my mom told me there’s discrimination against Asians in the application process.”
For years, many Asian-Americans have been convinced that it’s harder for them to gain admission to the nation’s top colleges.
Studies show that Asian-Americans meet these colleges’ admissions standards far out of proportion to their 6 percent representation in the U.S. population, and that they often need test scores hundreds of points higher than applicants from other ethnic groups to have an equal chance of admission. Critics say these numbers, along with the fact that some top colleges with race-blind admissions have double the Asian percentage of Ivy League schools, prove the existence of discrimination.
Now, an unknown number of students are responding to this concern by declining to identify themselves as Asian on their applications.
For those with only one Asian parent, whose names don’t give away their heritage, that decision can be relatively easy.
Olmstead is a freshman at Harvard and a member of HAPA, the Half-Asian People’s Association. She said she would advise students with one Asian parent to “check whatever race is not Asian.”
Amalia Halikias is a Yale freshman whose mother was born in America to Chinese immigrants; her father is a Greek immigrant. She also checked only the “white” box on her application.
“As someone who was applying with relatively strong scores, I didn’t want to be grouped into that stereotype,” Halikias said.
Her mother was “extremely encouraging” of that decision, Halikias says, even though she places a high value on preserving their Chinese heritage.
But leaving the Asian box blank felt wrong to Jodi Balfe, a Harvard freshman who was born in Korea and came here at age 3 with her Korean mother and white American father. She checked the box against the advice of her high school guidance counselor, teachers and friends.
“I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of trying to hide half of my ethnic background,” Balfe said.
Immigration from Asian countries was heavily restricted until laws were changed in 1965. When the gates finally opened, many Asian arrivals were well-educated, endured hardships to secure more opportunities for their families, and were determined to seize the American dream through effort and education.
“Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight A’s. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best,” wrote Amy Chua, only half tongue-in-cheek, in her recent best-selling book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”
Of course, not all Asian-Americans fit this stereotype. They are not always obedient hard workers who get top marks. Some embrace American rather than Asian culture.
But compared with American society in general, Asian-Americans have developed a much stronger emphasis on intense academic preparation as a path to a handful of the very best schools.
“The whole Tiger Mom stereotype is grounded in truth,” Tao Tao Holmes said, a Yale sophomore with a Chinese-born mother and white American father. She did not check “Asian” on her application.
“My math scores aren’t high enough for the Asian box,” she said. “I say it jokingly, but there is the underlying sentiment of, if I had emphasized myself as Asian, I would have [been expected to] excel more in stereotypically Asian-dominated subjects.”
“I was definitely held to a different standard [by my mom], and to different standards than my friends,” Holmes said. She sees the same rigorous academic focus among many other students with immigrant parents, even non-Asian ones.
Does Holmes think children of American parents are generally spoiled and lazy by comparison? “That’s essentially what I’m trying to say.”
Asian students have higher average SAT scores than any other group, including whites. A study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade examined applicants to top colleges from 1997, when the maximum SAT score was 1600 (today it’s 2400). Espenshade found that Asian-Americans needed a 1550 SAT to have an equal chance of getting into an elite college as white students with a 1410 or black students with an 1100.
The California Institute of Technology, a private school that chooses not to consider race, is about one-third Asian.
(Thirteen percent of California residents have Asian heritage.) The University of California-Berkeley, which is forbidden by state law to consider race in admissions, is more than 40 percent Asian — up from about 20 percent before the law was passed.
Yale, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania declined to make admissions officers available for interviews for this story.
Printed on Monday, December 5, 2011 as: Asian-Americans choosing not to reveal race on college applications