Education: The New Whiz Kids

Why Asian Americans are doing so well, and what it costs them

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Ted Thai

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For this fall's freshman class, Harvard's figures show it accepted 15% of the overall pool of 14,144 applicants, but only 12% of the Asian-American pool of 2,482. After a review of their admissions policies, Harvard and Princeton conceded that Asian-American applicants were accepted at lower rates than whites and other groups, but only because so many of them do not fall into two preferred categories: varsity athletes and children of alumni. Brown also concedes that it accepts a lower percentage of Asian-American candidates and explains that too many of these students have middle-class backgrounds, and that more than half expressed an interest in medicine. The college turns away a disproportionate number of them to enhance socioeconomic and academic diversity. Stanford, whose new freshman class will be 16% Asian-American, has acknowledged the possibility of an "unconscious bias" and no longer seeks ethnic identification on admissions forms.

The quota problem is not confined to colleges. At San Francisco's ultracompetitive Lowell High, Chinese Americans constitute 45% of the student body. But no city school may have more than 45% of its students from any ethnic group, a rule originally set by the courts to prevent de facto segregation of blacks and Hispanics. As a result, Lowell is having to turn away qualified Chinese-American students, a task that School Principal Alan Fibish describes as "odious."

Nowhere has the issue of Asian-American student admission been more bitterly fought than at Berkeley. Activist groups charge that if acceptances were based purely on merit, there would be even more Asian-American students than the 5,610 who now make up a quarter of the 22,000 undergraduates. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ken M. Kawaichi, co-chairman of the Asian American Task Force on University Admissions, assails Berkeley's "good old boy" administrators. "The campus they envision is mostly white, mostly upper middle class with limited numbers of blacks, Hispanics and Asians," says Kawaichi. "One day they looked around and said, 'My goodness, look at this campus. What are all these Asian people doing here?' Then they started tinkering with the system." The university admits its Asian-American acceptance rate dipped three years ago, after some technical changes in admission procedures, but denies discrimination and says the rate is going back up.

The recent case of Yat-Pang Au has intensified the debate. A straight-A student, Yat-Pang, 18, lettered in cross-country, was elected a justice on the school supreme court and last June graduated first in his class at San Jose's Gunderson High School. Berkeley turned him down. Watson M. Laetsch, Berkeley's vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs, insists that Yat-Pang was rejected only for a "highly competitive" engineering program. Had he applied to other colleges at Berkeley, "very likely he would have been accepted." Instead, Yat-Pang will study electrical engineering at DeAnza College near his home, and hopes to reapply to Berkeley for his junior year.

One vexing dilemma of the Yat-Pang case is not in dispute. Young Asian Americans tend to target the best schools, which have limited places even for students submitting top marks. While choosing this fall's freshman class, for example, Berkeley turned away 2,200 students from all backgrounds who had perfect grades.

To be that good and face rejection is tough for anyone, but seems more difficult for many Asian Americans. "They have almost a maniacal attitude that if they just work hard enough, they can do it," says Counselor Ilse Junod of New York's Baruch College. To some Asian Americans (and their parents), being only "very good" is tantamount to failure. In 1982, Leakhena Chan, a Cambodian student at South Boston High School, overwhelmed by the pressure of school and adjustment to a new country, tried to take her own life. She was one of eight Cambodians at South Boston who attempted suicide that year. Now a student at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., Leakhena can talk openly about the desperation that overcomes many Asian Americans who feel they cannot attain the academic success they expect of themselves. "I go to bed at 1 or 2 and get up early to study. You study so hard and still you don't have enough time to complete all the work. For me, whatever I do, I want to be perfect."

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