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What Elon Musk Gets Right About Anti-Asian Bias In Elite College Admissions

Anti-Asian bias is an open secret at elite institutions—Elon Musk is ready to talk about it.

When I applied to Yale University as a high school senior, I was told to expect rejection. There were plenty of reasons that I should not have held my breath—eighteen students in my graduating class were vying for the limited seats at Yale, my GPA was a less-than-stellar approximate 3.7 unweighted, and my test scores were lower than those of all of the other applicants from my high school. Rather than focusing all my effort on academics throughout high school, I had devoted my time to founding a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting bystander intervention and bringing emotional intelligence (EQ) into the classroom. Following my authentic passions allowed me to make meaningful change in my community, but it did not yield stand-out grades and test scores. In addition, no one from my school had been accepted to Yale within the past decade.

But it was not for these reasons that my school’s counselor told me I was not likely to be accepted—it was because I was an Asian American student with the odds stacked against me. The counselor noted that plenty of other Asian American students were applying with better scores, a more impressive resume, and more rigorous coursework. As an Asian American applicant, I had to be all the more impressive to stand out against the crowd and prove my worth to elite institutions.

Ultimately, I was the only student from my graduating class to earn acceptance into Yale.

Unfortunately, the fear of discrimination I faced in the admissions process is not unique—Asian American students face significant hurdles and repeated urges to appear “less Asian” when they express a desire to attend an Ivy League or top-tier school. So, although Musk’s tweet is severely reductionistic and misleadingly equates the plight of Asian and white students in the college admissions process, it accurately identifies the bias that Asian American applicants must combat.

Elon Musk's tweet on Feb 26, 2023 regarding discrimination in the elite college application process.
Elon Musk’s tweet on Feb 26, 2023 regarding discrimination in the elite college application process.TWITTER

Accusations of anti-Asian discrimination have plagued elite universities for decades, but until recently, evidence of anti-Asian bias had been anecdotal. However, the Students for Fair Admissions’ Supreme Court case against Harvard College and University of North Carolina along with increased attention given to rampant anti-Asian hate in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have paved the way for a more frank conversation about anti-Asian bias at prestigious institutions. The hearing in SFFA vs. Harvard in late October 2022 brought forth data that lends credence to Musk’s claim and validates the bias that many individual Asian American applicants feel subjected to during the admissions process.

At the same time, Musk’s tweet underscores the ways in which the fight against anti-Asian bias has been co-opted in service of other political agendas, as the issue has become mired in political disputes about higher education, equity in policy making, and racism against non-minority groups in America. Many educational experts and legal professionals have alleged that bias against Asian Americans is being used as a Trojan Horse to end race-conscious admissions for the benefit of white students, all while minimizing the ways in which race-conscious admissions actually benefit Asian American students. Others have noted that Asian Americans are not monolithic, and reductionistic generalizations about Asian American students contributes to harmful stereotypes rather than combating them.

In their brief to the court, Students for Fair Admissions pointed in particular to Harvard’s “personal rating,” on which Asian Americans score consistently lower than their white peers. The brief states: “Harvard’s mistreatment of Asian-American applicants is particularly striking: Its admissions process penalizes them for supposedly lacking as much leadership, confidence, likability, or kindness as white applicants.” Addressing this aspect of the application process, Harvard lawyer Seth P. Waxman claimed that the personal rating is a means of “triage” in order to vet the tens of thousands of applications received each year and stated that the lower scores in this metric are no different than the statistically higher scores Asian American students achieve in other metrics such as standardized testing. In addition, while Harvard’s lawyers vehemently denied that the university considered race in order to fill quotas or achieve a certain racial balance in their student body, Waxman eventually conceded that race can be used as a determining factor between students with similar application profiles, comparing determinations based on race to the decision between an oboe player and another musician—to which Justice Roberts tensely interjected, “We did not fight a civil war about oboe players. We did fight a civil war to eliminate racial discrimination, and that’s why it’s a matter of considerable concern.”

It is time to honestly and frankly discuss the pervasive anti-Asian bias in the college admissions process and to advocate for substantive change—but until Ivy League colleges and other elite universities change, I believe that applicants can change how they approach the college admissions process to overcome discrimination.

When I founded the private college admissions consulting firm Command Education out of my dorm room at Yale University in 2015, I wanted to help students—especially fellow Asian American students—discover their true passions and rise above the two-dimensional stereotypes in which they so often felt shuttered. The model I developed hinges on empowering students to develop unique, singularly focused interests and demonstrable passions, so that students can no longer be condensed into the checkboxes and one dimensional descriptors found on college applications—instead, they are entrepreneurs, medical researchers, designers of sustainable solutions, nonprofit founders, and more. The approach has been proven to work—during the last complete application cycle, 100% of students working with Command Education who applied early action to Harvard were admitted.

Until colleges and universities acknowledge and address the implicit bias in admissions processes, it is imperative for educators and legislators—and even Elon Musk—to call out anti-Asian discrimination in higher education.

By Forbes

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