Haunted by negative action: Asian Americans, admissions, and race in the "color-blind era"

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Author: Oiyan A. Poon
Date: Annual 2009
Publisher: President and Fellows of Harvard College, through the John F. Kennedy School of Government
Document Type: Report
Length: 3,817 words
Lexile Measure: 1540L

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In the 1980s, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), were found to be discriminating against Asian Americans in their admissions process. (1) Although the facts of the case showed that quotas against Asian American applicants favored White applicants, conservatives manipulated the facts in the case to shift the debate over affirmative action in favor of their anti-affirmative action agenda (Robles 2006; Takagi 1993). They argued that affirmative action was detrimental to Asian Americans and unfairly favored African Americans and Latinos (Kim 1999). However, the truth was that the two campuses were practicing "negative action." Jerry Kang (1996, 3) states, "negative action against Asian Americans is in force if a university denies admission to an Asian American who would have been admitted had that person been White."

On 4 February 2009, the University of California (UC) Board of Regents unanimously approved a new UC eligibility policy to begin in the fall of 2012; at the eleventh hour before the regents' vote, Asian American

voices from the political left raised concerns about the policy (Jaschik 2009). With the quota controversy from the 1980s still haunting the Asian American community, political leaders were wary of the perceived significant increase of Whites at the UC at the expense of Asian Americans, with marginal gains by other students of color--a negative action policy impact. Some reports about the new policy, however, have been inaccurate and even misleading in representing the new policy and may be causing more anxiety than is necessary. (2)

Given that the UC policy must meet the restrictions of Proposition 209 (California Secretary of State n.d.), could the UC be practicing negative action again, with the new university eligibility (3) policy? This article provides a summary of the new policy and discusses concerns raised by Asian American leaders, providing a critical analysis of the new policy's impact on Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) applicants. The article concludes with a commentary on the need for a sustained AAPI education advocacy organization to provide proactive analysis and leadership on education policy.

UC Eligibility Policy

At the heart of all admissions debates is the construction of the definition of "merit." Although Proposition 209 made race-conscious admissions policies illegal, the debate over race, equity, and college access is far from over. Each revision in the University of California's admissions eligibility policy since Proposition 209 has originated with a desire to increase fairness in defining merit and eligibility in admissions. The latest UC eligibility policy amendment originated from the results of a two-year comprehensive research study by the UC Regents Study Group on University Diversity about the impacts of Proposition 209. (4) One of the most alarming findings was that under the current policy, 49.1 percent of the admissions went to students from high schools that produce only 20 percent of the state's high school graduates, indicating the persistent and severe inequalities between high schools in the state. At the center of the policy change and debate is the amendment of criteria determining which students constitute the top 12.5 percent of California's high school graduates. The California Master Plan for Higher Education (University of California n.d.) guarantees UC admission to the top 12.5 percent of the state's graduating high school students but does not dictate how the university should define the top 12.5 percent.

Current Policy

The current policy determines the top 12.5 percent through three sets of criteria. In the state context, students become UC eligible if they are in the top 12.5 percent of the state based on an index of grade point average (GPA) and tests. A second group of students is considered eligible in local context if these students rank in the top 4 percent of their graduating high school class. Both of these groups must complete the required set of college preparatory coursework, have a weighted GPA of at least 3.0, and have completed the ACT writing test or SAT reasoning test (SAT-R) and two SAT subject tests (SAT-S). A third group of students is identified as UC eligible by examination alone. Currently, all students deemed eligible for UC admission are guaranteed admission, but not to the campus of their choice. Students who are denied entry at the campuses to which they applied are still guaranteed a spot in the university through a process of referral to one of the nine undergraduate campuses in the system. Therefore, the entire top 12.5 percent of the state's high school graduates is offered admission to the UC system.

Once the UC-eligible applicant pool is identified, the applications are distributed to the campuses to which the students applied. Each campus selects students using its campus-specific comprehensive review criteria and process. Comprehensive review allows each campus to "look beyond the required test scores and grades to evaluate applicants' academic achievements in light of the opportunities available to them and the capacity each student demonstrates to contribute to the intellectual life of the campus" (University of California Admissions n.d.). At present, comprehensive review (5) is not used in identifying the top 12.5 percent.

UC Eligibility Policy, Beginning Fall 2012

With the unanimous vote by the regents to approve the new policy, significant changes will be made to the criteria defining eligibility for admissions, but not admissions to any particular UC campus. First, applicants will no longer be required to take the SAT-S, but if they choose to take this test and submit it in the application process, the UC will consider the scores as additional information just as it does with Advanced Placement (AP) test scores. Unlike the current policy, not all entitled to review (ETR) students will be guaranteed admission. All high school graduates who have completed the required coursework, maintained a minimum weighted GPA of 3.0, and submitted scores from the ACT writing test or the SATR will be deemed ETR in the UC admissions process. About 21.7 percent of California high school students are projected to be ETR under these requirements, but less than half will be guaranteed admission. In order to be in the "guaranteed" admission pool, students would need to fall into one of the two following categories: be in the top 9 percent of California high school graduates as determined by an index of grades and test scores (ETR in statewide context), or be in the top 9 percent of their graduating high school class in the state (ETR in local context). Together, these two groups of guaranteed students are predicted to make up about 10.1 percent of the state's high school graduates. As in the current policy, these students will be guaranteed UC admission, but not to the campus or major of their choice. The remaining 11.6 percent of ETR high school graduates will be reviewed but not guaranteed admission at campuses to which they apply. Selected students from this second pool would make up the additional 2.4 percent of the top 12.5 percent. Slightly under half (46.5 percent) (6) of ETR students will be guaranteed admission, while the other 53.5 percent will be in the other nonguaranteed pool.

The comprehensive review process at each campus remains unchanged by the new policy. All ETR students who submit an application will have their application forwarded to the campuses to which they applied. Each campus, using its own comprehensive review criteria and process, will select students from the total ETR pool of applicants, including students in both the "guaranteed" and "not guaranteed" pools. To meet the admissions guarantee extended to 10.1 percent of the state's high school graduates, the eventual UC-wide admitted group of students will consist of approximately 80.8 percent (7) from the "guaranteed" pool and about 19.2 percent from the other pool. Between students guaranteed UC admission and the additional students admitted from the pool of applicants not guaranteed admission, the UC would still fulfill the 12.5 percent target. Figure 1 illustrates the new policy.

Addressing AAPI Concerns: Negative Action Impact?

Shortly before the regents' vote on the policy, the Asian Pacific Islander (API) Legislative Caucus submitted a letter to the board, calling for a delay in the vote and further studies on the impact of the policy change. Also, a group of prominent AAPI leaders in San Francisco staged a press conference on the day of the board vote. Both groups raised concerns over the possible negative action impacts on eligibility and admissions of AAPI applicants. This section reviews the policy in light of their concerns. All data was obtained from the UC.

Eligibility Concerns

Figure 2 compares the UC's projected ETR numbers to the 2007 eligibility numbers under the current policy. AAPI leaders raised concerns over the significant decrease in the AAPI proportion of UC eligible students, from a 32.6 percent AAPI share of currently UC eligible (and guaranteed admissions) to 30.5 percent of the "guaranteed" pool and to 25.2 percent of the total ETR pool under the new policy. With the exception of American Indians, every population's actual number of "guaranteed" students decreases from their current numbers of UC eligibility. This may logically be due to the overall decrease from 12.5 percent of the state's high school graduates guaranteed admissions to 10.1 percent. While the AAPI guaranteed numbers drop by 29 percent, Latinos experience a similar decline of about 28 percent. African Americans are predicted to have the sharpest decline in guaranteed admissions with a 36 percent drop.

However, every population experiences increased numbers of UC eligible students. Overall UC eligibility increases from 46,795 to 76,141. About 30,000 more students will have the opportunity to apply to the UC under the new policy, including about 5,686 who attend low-performing high schools (Hurtado 2009b). For AAPI applicants, 3,922 more students will be permitted to apply to the UC. Of these newly ETR students, 1,090 of these are Filipino, and another 438 are Pacific Islanders (Hurtado 2009a). The elimination of the SAT-S requirement accounts for 2,488 out of the additional 3,922 AAPI students.

The increase in UC eligible students is largely explained by the abandonment of the SAT-S requirement. During the July 2008 regents meeting, members of the academic senate, which proposed the new policy after vetting it at each UC campus, showed that the elimination of the SAT-S would significantly increase the number of UC eligible students, many of whom are high achievers (Regents of the University of California 2008). Some do not take the SAT-S because they are pursuing other opportunities, and the SAT-S is a rare requirement for other institutions. By requiring the SAT-S, the UC eliminated itself from contention for many high-performing students.

Despite the increase of AAPI students who are ETR, AAPI leaders point to the change in the racial distribution from UC eligibility, with the White eligibility proportion increasing to a stable 46 percent in each category. The proportion of AAPI ETR students decreases relative to the overall increase to about 76,000 students of those who are ETR, with White students accounting for about half of the increase in the overall denominator. Here, the college choice process may be influencing the denominator. One hypothesis explaining the large increase in White ETR is that affluent Whites may be pursuing elite college opportunities, while low-income Whites may be choosing to enter community colleges or the California State University system, thus choosing not to take the SAT-S (McDonough 1997). Similarly, Latino eligibility nearly doubles and may be explained by the propensity of these students to pursue the more affordable community college route into the UC (Carnavale and Fry 1999).

However, AAPI community leaders also point to research (Geiser 2008) claiming that SAT-R scores are more tied to socioeconomic differences among tests takers. But, Mark M. Rashid et al. (2009) astutely critique Saul Geiser's arguments, finding some of them to be misleading. (8) Moreover, recent research conducted by the UC showed that of AAPI students that scored higher on the SAT-S than the SAT-R, only eight-six of them would have become UC eligible based on their SAT-S scores. Thus, the SAT-S requirement does not significantly help AAPI students, especially compared to the 2,488 AAPI students who are currently barred from being considered for UC admissions because of the SAT-S requirement (Hurtado 2009a).

Admissions Concerns

While eligibility affects who gets admitted, it is highly problematic to project admissions statistics under the new policy. However, the UC did release data predicting the number of students admitted under the new policy, summarized in Figure 3. Looking at these numbers, it is clear why AAPI leaders would call attention to the possibility of a negative action effect, with AAPI admits decreasing and Whites increasing. However, these figures depend on projections of a new policy not yet implemented, using data on California public high school students from 2007. As the public is educated on the policy changes, students, counselors, families, and school districts are expected to change behaviors and decisions. Given that data used in this projection will be five years old by the time the new policy is implemented, this table should be considered irrelevant. Moreover, comprehensive review policies--which are left untouched by the new policy--at the nine UC campuses are always evolving and will be what ultimately impacts the demographics of admitted students. However, AAPI leaders concerned with college access and equity should continue working with the UC and remain vigilant over the possibility of AAPI numbers dropping in favor of White students as fall 2012 approaches.

Discussion and Policy Recommendations

The experience with negative action in the 1980s contributed to a collective memory for AAPIs that has naturally made community leaders wary of possible quotas on AAPI students, even under Proposition 209. Two decades later, AAPI political power has increased significantly, but sustained infrastructure for leadership representing AAPI interests in education policy is still not developed. While AAPI leaders have raised important points of debate, the lack of an AAPI organization functioning to conduct ongoing education policy analysis and to facilitate engagement in education policy led to last-minute lobbying of the regents by the API Legislative Caucus and a missed opportunity for an important discussion between the UC and the AAPI community.

The API Legislative Caucus raised five main points, with primary criticism focused on eligibility and admissions predictions. The first concern was over projected admissions numbers. However, these projections are statistically immaterial, as discussed earlier. The second issue was the perceived decline in AAPI student eligibility, with the White proportion of ETR students increasing. However, the decline is in AAPI proportion of UC eligibility, reflecting the White increase in the denominator, and not a real decrease in ETR for AAPI students. It is also important to remember that not all eligible students apply to the UC.

Third, given the perceived drops in AAPI students in admissions and ETR, the caucus wanted to know which AAPI students would be most affected. Would these AAPI students be low-income, first-generation college goers? Unfortunately, available data from the California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) is not fully disaggregated and also does not provide information on economic class backgrounds of students. Given the success of a campaign (Vazquez 2007) to require the UC to further disaggregate AAPI data, it may be worthwhile for AAPI leaders to pressure CPEC to disaggregate its data.

While available data is not ethnically disaggregated for Southeast Asians, Professor Sylvia Hurtado, chair of the academic senate committee on undergraduate admissions and a noted scholar in racial equity in college access, confirms that the increase in AAPI eligibility is benefiting many Filipinos and Pacific Islanders (Hurtado 2009a). Moreover, in the process of comprehensive review, AAPI low-income and first-generation college goers have greatly benefited. Since the beginning of comprehensive review, the number of AAPI admitted students to the UC has continued to increase. Fourth, the AAPI community leaders criticized the elimination of the SAT-S requirement over the SAT-R. However, it seems their concerns over the elimination of the SAT-S are based on misinformation (Rashid et al. 2009). Overall, the new policy significantly opens opportunities to many more California high school graduates.

Finally, AAPI leaders criticized the UC for not conducting outreach to AAPI communities and leaders with enough time to have a productive dialogue about the potential impacts of the policy change. Although a negative action policy impact has not been confirmed, it is still important that AAPI community leaders protested what seemed like a sudden policy change. They are now very visible to the UC, which realizes that AAPIs cannot be ignored. However, this episode makes it clear that there needs to be a sustained organization advocating for AAPI interests in education policy and not just on issues of admissions (Park and Chang 2008).

While there is the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education, the organization is unsustainable with its membership dominated by high-ranking institutional leaders. Moreover, AAPIs should participate in education policy debates outside of college admissions and higher education affairs. In K-12 policy making, AAPIs are also left out of important debates because of the lack of a sustained, progressive AAPI education organization. Issues such as the upcoming reappropriation of No Child Left Behind, bilingual education, school desegregation, and other discussions would greatly benefit from such an organization. With a proactive organization advocating for AAPI interests in education policy, it would be more difficult for people like Stephan Thernstrom (2009) to pretend to represent Asian American interests in education and racial equity. Finally, an organization functioning to facilitate education policy engagement by AAPIs could help make the contributions of AAPI leaders in education debates less episodic and reactionary.


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Carnavale, Anthony P., and Richard A. Fry. 1999. Crossing the great divide: Can we achieve equity when generation Y goes to college? Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Chang, Mitchell J. et al. 2007. Beyond myths: The growth and diversity of Asian American college freshmen, 1971-2005. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Geiser, Saul. 2008. Not so fast! A second opinion on a University of California proposal to endorse the new SAT. Research and Occasional Paper Series, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley (http://repositories.cdlib.org/cshe/CSHE_16_08).

Hurtado, Sylvia. 2009a. Interview with the author, UCLA Department of Education, 11 February.

--. 2009b. E-mail message to the author, 13 February.

Jaschik, Scott. 2009. Unintentional whitening of U. of California? Inside Higher Ed, 5 February (www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/02/05/uc).

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Kim, Claire J. 1999. The racial triangulation of Asian Americans. Politics & Society 27(1): 105-138.

McDonough, Patricia M. 1997. Choosing colleges: How social class and schools structure opportunity.

Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Moores, John. 2004. College capers: Defying voters, UC, Berkeley is admitting kids with low SAT scores and rejecting high achievers. Forbes, 29 March (www.forbes.com/forbes/2004/0329/040.html).

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Thernstrom, Stephan. 2009. Staving off the "yellow peril": The University of California regents attempt to curtail Asian admissions. National Review Online, 6 February (http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ZDVkOTA0YzNhMDgyY2NhNGFjM2ViZjJkMT VhZjAwNTI).

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(1) For a detailed history and discussions about the University of California admissions controversy in the 1980s, see Don T. Nakanishi (1995) and Dana Y. Takagi (1993).

(2) The complex nature of the new eligibility policy has led some news reports, like the one by Scott Jaschik (2009), to be inaccurate in their representation. It has been an opportunity for others like Stephan Thernstrom (2009) to instigate racial conflict between Asian Americans and other minorities.

(3) It is important to remember that the new policy is reforming eligibility criteria and not campus admissions policies.

(4) Background about and reports completed by the UC Regents Study Group on University Diversity can be found at: www.universityofcalifornia.edu/diversity/reports.html.

(5) Former UC Regent John Moores (2004) criticized comprehensive review, calling it a means for the UC to discriminate against Asian American applicants. Moores (2004) did not agree with including "factors like disabilities, low family income, first generation to attend college, need to work, disadvantaged social or educational environment, difficult personal and family situations," in campus selection processes. Moores and other opponents of policies that broaden the definition of "merit," conveniently neglect significant research that shows noncognitive factors as significant predictors of college success (Sedlacek 2004). Ironically, they also ignore statistics showing that considerable proportions of Asian American students come from low-income families, are first-generation college goers, and come from disadvantaged or difficult personal and family circumstances. Mitchell J. Chang et al. (2007) reported that nationally, almost one-third of Asian American college freshmen had a parent with a high school education or less, and almost half were from low-income households.

(6) (10.1 percent of California high school graduates guaranteed admissions)/(21.7 percent of UC eligible California high school graduates) = 46.5 percent.

(7) (10.1 percent of California high school graduates guaranteed admissions)/(12.5 percent of California high school students admitted to UC) = 80.8 percent.

(8) Mark M. Rashid et al. (2009) provide an extensive discussion regarding the function of tests in admissions and the reasons for eliminating the SAT subject test requirement, including the 2006 changes in SAT-R making the SAT-S a largely redundant requirement.

Oiyan A. Poon is a Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2007, Ms. Poon was elected president of the UC Student Association (UCSA), which advocates on behalf of the interests of all students in the university for equity, access, and affordability. In July 2007, representing UCSA at the UC Regents meeting, Ms. Poon lobbied the regents to reform its undergraduate admissions eligibility criteria. Her admissions policy experience includes serving as a comprehensive review admissions reader at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include race-conscious policies and Asian Americans, critical literacy development, and Asian American education.

Figure 2: Comparison of Current UC Eligibility to Projected
UC ETR Numbers

                                   Projected UC ETR Pool: New Policy

   Currently Eligible Under        Total # ETR
        Existing Policy            Students

               %      # Students     %      # Students

Total                   46,795                76,141
Black         3.3%      1,560       4.4%      3,350
Latino       18.7%      8,731      21.4%      16,294
Am. Indian    1.0%        88        0.4%       305
AAPI         32.6%      15,266     25.2%      19,188
White        42.7%      19,996     46.5%      35,406
Other         2.5%      1,153       2.2%      1,675

Currently    Projected UC ETR Pool: New Policy
Under        Pool Guaranteed       Pool Considered
Existing     Admissions            for Admission
               %      # Students     %      # Students

Total                   35,475                40,666
Black         2.8%       993        5.8%      2,357
Latino       17.5%      6,208      24.8%      10,086
Am. Indian    0.3%       106        0.5%       199
AAPI         30.5%      10,820     20.6%      8.368
White        46.9%      16,638     46.2%      18,768
Other         2.1%       745        2.3%       930

Source: University of California Board of Regents,
notes from Committee on Educational Policy meeting
4 February 2009.

Figure 3: UC Predicted Admitted Students by Race/Ethnicity;
Low-Performing High School

Race/Ethnicity    2007-2008   2007-2008   Predicted
                  $ of        # admits    # change

Black             4%          2,050       0-25%
Chicano/Latino    19%         10,496      0-16%
American Indian   1%          *           *
AAPI              36%         19,656      (19)-(11)%
White             34%         18,199      21-29%
Low-performing    14%         *           29-50%
  high schools

Race/Ethnicity    Predicted-low   Predicted-high
                  # change        # change

Black             0               +513
Chicano/Latino    0               1,657
American Indian   *               *
AAPI              -3,822          -2,184
White             3,747           +5,353
  high schools

* Data was not available.

Source: University of California Board of Regents, notes
from Committee on Educational Policy meeting 4 February 2009.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A210520241