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5 Things to Consider When Covering AAPI Students and Affirmative Action

As May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, we’re looking more closely into higher education topics through the lens of the AAPI student experience. One big development we’re watching is an upcoming ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on the consideration of a student’s race in admission to colleges and universities, a decision that will have far-reaching impacts.

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The U.S. Supreme Court will soon issue a ruling in a pair of cases challenging the use of race in college admissions. Court watchers believe affirmative action is not likely to survive or could face severe scaling back given the court’s conservative majority. A professional association of college registrars and admissions officers has preemptively instructed members to prepare “for a possible major change in their ability to consider an applicant’s race and ethnicity as part of a holistic/equity review in admissions.”

Currently, colleges are permitted to consider an applicant’s race as one factor in the admissions process to achieve a diverse learning environment. That precedent was first established with the court’s 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke ruling and was reaffirmed in 2003 and again in 2016.

This time, the legal strategy shifted to focus on Asian American applicants to Harvard and Asian American and white applicants to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a group founded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, argues the schools discriminate against qualified Asian American and white applicants in order to admit more Black, Hispanic and Native American students. The schools deny any racial balancing and say they use a lawful holistic review process to foster a diverse campus community.

As journalists prepare to untangle the complicated issues at stake in the days and weeks after the ruling, here are five things to consider when it comes to affirmative action and the Asian American Pacific Islander student community:

A Ban on Affirmative Action Will Harm Distinct Subsets of the AAPI Community

As a whole, Asian Americans ages 18-24 attend college at a high rate (64% in 2020). And despite making up roughly 6% of the U.S. population, they comprise a substantial share at highly selective schools (18% as of 2018), including nearly 28% at Harvard among this year’s entering class. But these statistics don’t reveal nuances within the AAPI umbrella.

There is great variation when it comes to AAPI socioeconomic status, income level, immigration patterns, generational college history and English-language proficiency, all of which impacts college access and selection among this multi-varied group of roughly 20.6 million people.

Bachelor’s degree attainment among AAPIs varies widely depending on national origin: from 80% at the high end down to just 12%, according to 2020 American Community Survey data. Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians had a college-going rate of 34% in 2020. 

“There’s just incredible diversity among Asian Americans,” said Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts University and author of Is Affirmative Action Fair?. “There are groups like Hmong Americans, Bangladeshi Americans, that likely do benefit from affirmative action because they tend to be underrepresented on these campuses. They will obviously no longer be eligible for that policy.”

A reversal of affirmative action would also impact students beyond the undergraduate level, said Julie J. Park, associate professor of education at University of Maryland College Park.*

“The ruling would potentially have repercussions for graduate schools, medical school, law school, graduate fellowships, all of those things,” she said. Financial aid and scholarships geared toward students of color, including AAPIs, would also be at risk. 

“There could be ripple effects. It would hurt the targeted financial aid programs that do still exist. Those programs that are already a little watered down, they will water down a little more,” due to worries over a legal challenge, Park added.

Systemic Bias Affects AAPIs Outside the Anti-Affirmative Action Argument 

SFFA contends Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants by holding them to a higher standard and by scoring them lower in the personal ratings section of admissions, to make room for students from other racial groups.

Though evidence at a 2019 trial showed Asian American applicants received lower marks on personal ratings than other groups, the district judge said there was no evidence of intentional discrimination by Harvard. She acknowledged potential implicit bias by admissions officers. 

In a 2021 report, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce said that the lower rate of acceptance among Asian Americans at highly selective colleges compared with other racial groups is because they apply to schools with more frequency. “The fact that Asian Americans face higher rates of rejection is not, by itself, evidence of an unfair standard,” the report states. “It is evidence that Asian Americans take more chances in applying to top colleges, and therefore have a greater chance of rejection.”  

Many say SFFA’s charge of anti-Asian discrimination is a red herring that won’t be remedied by banning affirmative action. Education experts say it was a tactical move by affirmative action opponents to position Asian Americans at the center of the debate. 

In 2016, two years after SFFA filed this lawsuit, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the use of race-conscious admissions in Fisher v. University of Texas. In his dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito signaled Asian American student admission was key to dismantling policy. 

“The use of Asian Americans in the Harvard and UNC cases was a super strategic move that I would argue was decades in the making,” said Kevin Kumashiro, an educational policy expert and former dean of the University of San Francisco School of Education.

Warikoo added that if it’s anti-Asian discrimination we want to examine, “we’re looking in the wrong place” by targeting affirmative action. Instead, she said to question why there aren’t more AAPIs in managerial or leadership positions or to investigate high rates of bullying against AAPI students at the K-12 level. There’s also disproportionately fewer tenured AAPI faculty in higher ed.

An Emphasis on ‘Objective’ Qualifications for Elite Admissions Reinforces the ‘Model Minority’ Myth

A backdrop to these cases is a stereotype of Asian Americans as a “model minority,” a label that generalizes the group as studious, hard-working, high-achieving and successful. Despite their high grades and test scores, AAPI applicants are unfairly being passed over for admission at elite schools that practice affirmative action, SFFA argues.

But this paints a very one-dimensional picture of AAPIs. Moreover, Asian American students who do well on tests and have high GPAs aren’t necessarily “objectively more qualified than other students to get into the top universities,” Kumashiro said.

“Standardized test scores and GPAs are one small slice of who a person is,” he said. Such tests are also not necessarily objective, fair or comprehensive, he added.

One thing Kumashiro advises not to do is perpetuate a narrative that “all these Asian American students that are really bright, that are highly qualified, are not getting in simply because of considerations of race,” he said. It diminishes the other attributes they bring to the table and “reinforces the story that there are these more objective criteria like test scores that should be the basis of getting in.”

While college admissions counselors consider high school grades, strength of curriculum and test scores as top factors for admission, they also are weighing essays, recommendations and extracurriculars, according to the 2019 State of College Admission report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Focusing heavily on admissions at the most competitive schools, which comprise just a small percentage of total colleges and universities in the U.S., also does a disservice to students, experts say.

Consider that of roughly 1,300 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. studied by the Pew Research Center, more than half admitted two-thirds or more of applicants in 2017 while just under 20 institutions in that same sample admitted fewer than 10% of applicants. 

The percentage of low-income AAPI kids who apply to selective schools is higher than for other racial groups. Yet 47% of AAPIs in 2005 attended community college, according to one study. A majority of AAPIs attend two-year colleges, according to the website AAPIData.  

Statewide Bans on Affirmative Action Led to Declines in Cross-Racial Solidarity Work 

Nine states have banned the use of race in college admissions but perhaps none is more studied than California, which passed Prop 209 in 1996.

Enrollment among underrepresented groups in the University of California system dropped. At UCLA specifically, Black student enrollment fell from 7% to 3% in 1998 — though it rebounded to roughly 6% by 2019, according to The New York Times.

Park studied how the ban impacted membership in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at unnamed “California University.” In the early to mid-90s, the organization  allowed students the opportunity to talk freely about race-related issues: “Students frequently mentioned that InterVarsity was the most diverse place they had ever worshiped,” Park wrote in a 2013 piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education. “There were black, Asian American, and Latino students who were drawn to InterVarsity’s zeal for racial reconciliation” in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, she added in the article.

In her research, Park found Black participation in InterVarsity dropped following Prop 209. Black students comprised less than 2% of the 2006 freshman class and “were less likely to want to spend extra time with peers of different races after spending the entire day as the only black student in their classes,” she wrote. Park said Asian American students expressed a desire to spend more time in multi-racial settings, but the opportunity was compromised when the student organization dropped in diversity.

“We have decades of research that documents the widespread benefits of engaging with racial-ethnic diversity during the college years — everything from teamwork to critical thinking to social perspective taking,” Park said.

Warikoo said an overall decrease in racial diversity on college campuses will be a real loss to fostering new perspectives among all ethnic groups. “Our housing in the United States is so segregated; often residential college campuses are the first time when particularly, middle-class white and Asian American students are in much more diverse environments,” she said. 

Understand There Is Complexity in Viewpoints, and Highlight Stories of Underrepresented AAPIs

According to the 2022 Asian American Voter Survey, 69% of Asian American registered voters support affirmative action. But there is a complexity of views depending on background, culture and timing of arrival to the U.S. that might help explain discontent among some AAPIs over admissions policies that are not strictly meritocratic. 

In a 2019 Harvard Educational Review article, OiYan Poon, associate professor affiliate in the School of Education at Colorado State University, surveyed various AAPI individuals. She and co-authors found that supporters of affirmative action in the sampling spanned diverse AAPI identities across ethnicity, immigrant generation, economic class, gender and sexuality while most of the opponents were immigrants and identified as Chinese.

One article that recapped the findings summarized that the affirmative-action opponents among AAPIs “assert an ethnocentric nationalist perspective” while others approached it from a “class inequality” perspective. 

Experts suggest looking beyond examples of students with perfect academic records who didn’t get into their highly selective institution of choice.

When it comes to selective schools, remember “their admit rates are ridiculously low,” Warikoo said. “We need to get away from thinking that there are these few colleges that are going to make or break your life. We need to stop thinking about college admissions as this kind of individual meritocracy, like a measure of an individual’s worth.”

Warikoo suggested talking to older students who didn’t get into their top choices and asking what they got out of their college experiences. “How do they feel about it now; what lessons have they learned; what advice would they have for a 16-year-old applying to college right now?” she said.

Nikki Chun, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Hawaii Manoa and the former director of undergraduate admissions at California Institute of Technology, urges media to highlight stories of underrepresented students.

“We don’t need affirmative action to tell us which stories are less told. We know which stories continue to need amplification,” Chun said. “Until we have evidence that all of that has shifted, I hope folks in your role will continue to be committed to those stories.”


*Julie J. Park, associate professor, College of Education, University of Maryland College Park. She served as a consulting expert for Harvard in this litigation. All opinions are her own.