hat first comes to mind when we think of Asian tourists? Ashley Greaves ’16 described them as “usually in a large group.” Jordan Lee ’17 added that “they take a lot of pictures.”
Having travelled more than 200 miles and across five states with such a group, I must admit that despite all the misconceptions, these characterizations were the two that seemed to hold true.
The tourists in my group took a lot of pictures. At Princeton, I noticed an elderly Cantonese women, about 5’4” in height, using a pink iPad to take selfies of herself in front of different buildings. Still, there was a method behind this madness: In a way, the structure of these tours makes copious photo-taking inevitable. With less than 15 minutes at some notable sites, even I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of a slew of buildings along the way, even when they were of questionable renown. And with all this to think about, I still had to find time for a bathroom break before the next eight-hour stretch.
The size of the tour — 50 people in my case — has more interesting implications. According to our tour guide Lingling Hu, companies keep the groups relatively large in order to maximize profits. From the look of it, business is booming: Every seat on our charter bus was filled. While the bus also made stops at other East Coast landmarks, an undeniable reason for this interest is the visitors’ fascination for the American higher education system.
The demand among East Asians for an American education has grown increasingly over the years. According to the Wall Street Journal, Chinese international students studying in America grew from roughly 60,000 in 2006 to 200,000 in 2012. But the reasons behind the popularity of tours like the one I was on are more complicated than simply the reputation of elite American schools.
I met Beijing native Lilly Wang as we were departing from the Lincoln Memorial. She was on the bus with her daughter Nelly, a high school sophomore. While Wang acknowledged that she was attracted to the schools because “American colleges are world-famous,” her desire for her daughter to enroll in one of them extends beyond an attraction to their prestige. For Wang, who attended Peking University in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, an American education represents freedom.
During Wang’s time studying at China’s number one-ranked college, fear of unrest had caused the capital to be placed under martial law, and the university’s administration enforced a complete shut-down of free speech amongst the student body.
Wang remembers being scared to speak. She listened to her professors and did not dare to argue against their teachings. There was little dialogue between her and her classmates, and any discussion of politics was completely off limits.
“In China,” Wang recalled, “you learned, did your research and did your homework. In America, you get to do so much more.”
Wang is not alone in wanting this sort of education for her daughter. On the trip were two other families with their kids, both of whom told me they were on this tour to look at schools for similar reasons. Even a retired couple, Baoming Wu and Li Chen, were on the tour because they were interested in learning about American universities “so the next generation can benefit from [their] knowledge.”
This interest is mirrored in America’s Asian population. In the New York Times Opinion Pages last December, writer Ron Unz estimated that America’s college-age Asian population has roughly doubled between 1992 and 2011. Yet numbers among the Asian population at elite institutions have remained relatively stagnant, inciting media speculation about “Asian quotas” at Yale and its peer institutions.
Unz noted that while “top officials at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the other Ivy League schools today strongly deny the existence of ‘Asian quotas,’” the numbers suggest that admissions for Asian students (both domestic and international) has been capped at around 16.5 percent of the overall undergraduate population since around 1993. For this reason, Asian ethnicity is often referred to as an ‘anti-hook’ (whereas a ‘hook’ is a marked asset to an applicant’s profile).
The potential existence of these quotas has been likened to the Ivy League Jewish quotas of the 1920s, which were also denied at the time. According to research conducted by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade GRD ’66, Asian applicants experience a disadvantage of roughly 140 SAT points in the admissions process. From a statistical standpoint, on average Asian American applicants would have to have SAT scores 140 points higher than white students (everything else being equal) to have the same chance of being admitted, he told the News.
Espenshade added the caveat that he does not have access to all the variables to which an admissions dean has access. As a result, his research is unable to account for softer variables like teacher recommendations or student personal statements.
“So we stopped short of saying that this is evidence of discrimination against Asian students and refer to it as a disadvantage or penalty,” he elaborated.
He said one way Yale could eliminate current speculation is through releasing its applicant pool data, which have not been available to the public for the last 20 years.
But this is a tricky topic that is hard to parse out fairly. When I spoke to Yale Admissions Officer Jonathan Martin ’12 on the matter, he reassured me that “There has been a lot in the media about a perception of an anti-Asian bias, but we do not have a bias here. All of our admission practices are in line with Supreme Court decisions that have been made.”
And it seems like a lot of students believe him, or at least believe that the complexity of the process makes it difficult to determine whether discrimination occurs, especially since if it’s important for Yale to be a diverse community.
Guo, who was part of a small Asian minority in her high school, said she never felt that her ethnicity negatively affected her application.
But others, such as Asian American Studies Task Force coordinator Austin Long ’15, think that there are still discussions to be had, especially if the numbers indicate a bias.
“I think it’s necessary for institutions to have diversity, but then it’s also important to give people who have reached a level of success a chance to continue on that success,” he said, adding that the entire process should be more open and honest.
On the flip side, Hu pointed out that China has one of the most transparent college admissions processes in the world. For the most part, a student’s college acceptance is based entirely on a single test score. Yet the number of Chinese students coming to study in America is much greater — about 215,000 students greater, according to the Wall Street Journal — than the amount of American students studying in China.