Asian American Freshmen: Social Science Or Special Pleading?

The UCLA Daily Bruin today reports some of the findings of “the largest and most comprehensive analysis of data on Asian American college students” ever conducted.

The report [which can be found here], “Beyond Myths: The Growth and Diversity of Asian American College Freshmen, 1971-2005,” states that Asian Americans do not enjoy universal academic success in higher education, contrary to popular belief. Fewer students are attending their first-choice schools, and more face problems in financing their education, according to the report.

The data analyzed were compiled from 361,271 Asian American incoming freshmen students who took the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey, administered by the Higher Education Research Institution at UCLA from 1971 to 2005.

The obvious intent of the study is to debunk the myth that the path to higher education for Asians is easy and free of obstacles. For example, one of its findings is that 30.9% of Asian American freshmen come from families with incomes under $40,000, compared to only 22.% of the national population of college freshmen.

Somewhat more ambiguous, however, at least in my opinion, is the big deal the report makes (at least as summarized in the Daily Bruin) of the declining percentage of Asian American freshmen who are attending their first choice college: 68% did in 1970; by 2005 that proportion dropped to 51.8%. This decline is obviously related to another finding: in 1980, 10.7% applied to six or more colleges; 35.9% did in 2005.

This decline in the proportion of Asian American freshmen attending their first choice college, whatever it means, is no doubt interesting. But it seems to me highly unlikely (I understate here) that it means what one of the report’s authors, Oiyan Poon, says it means:

…. There is a myth that Asian Americans do not benefit from affirmative action, but we have found this is not true.”

The number of Asian Americans attending their first-choice colleges has declined and is lower than the national average.

“If students were not benefiting from affirmative action, then there would not have been a large decrease in students attending their first-choice colleges after the University of California ended affirmative action with Proposition 209 in the mid-1990s,” Poon said. “But there has been a larger decrease than many other ethnic groups.”

I’ve not yet read the report, and I will be quite eager to hear from anyone who has whether this conclusion, which strikes me as bizarre, is confirmed there. All the data I’ve seen, and cited more than once (no time to check right now), reveals that the number of Asian Americans admitted to Berkeley and UCLA skyrocketed after the elimination of racial preferences in admissions. In any event it seems unlikely that one state’s elimination of racial preference could have such a dramatic effect on the proportion of Asian American freshmen across the whole country attending their first choice college, especially given the dramatic increase in the number of colleges to which those students apply.

Indeed, I would hypothesize that one of the reasons Asian Americans increased the number of colleges they applied to after 1970 is that they realized that affirmative action works against them, that the admissions hurdle is higher for them at selective colleges in large part because of affirmative action.

Oiyan Poon’s use of this data to make what sounds like a spurious claim about affirmative action looks to me more like special pleading than social science.

Say What? (2)

  1. anonymous October 17, 2007 at 11:08 am | | Reply

    Not only did Asian American enrollment increase at the UC after 209, but /every/ regression based study of admissions finds that Asians are as likely or /less/ likely than comparably qualified whites to get into a given college. That is, there is no evidence of affirmative action for Asians, and some evidence of actual discrimination against them.

  2. JsinGood October 17, 2007 at 12:54 pm | | Reply

    I looked at the UC San Diego CIRP data for the total freshman population, and in 1984, 80.5% said UCSD was their first choice, and in 2006, only 41.2% did. This is just one campus, but still, there’s nothing really to suggest that the trend is in any way tied to 209. It steadily declined throughout the years.

    They’re SEARCHING for anything they can attribute to the ending of affirmative action processes. The more likely cause of the decline in “first-choice” opportunities are more likely (1) increased competition overall for admission slots, and (2) squishy “qualitative” admission processes which seek to replicate affirmative action quotas – eliminating equal opportunity for Asian and White students, by favoring non-academic criteria.

    Not to mention, in 1970, people had to apply to each UC with a separate application, and nowadays, students apply with a single application. This change in process dramatically changed the number of colleges students applied to – as well as applicant-to-admit rates and yields.

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