A Yale freshman has filed a civil rights complaint against Princeton University, alleging that the college did not accept his application for enrollment last spring because he is Asian-American.
Jian Li ’10, who was born in China and now lives in New Jersey, said that while he is not seeking any compensation from Princeton, he hopes to draw attention to discrimination against Asian-American students in the admissions process, which he called an “under-addressed issue.”
Li lodged his complaint with the Office for Civil Rights on Aug. 2 under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects against discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. After initially rejecting his claim for lack of evidence, the office reopened the case on Oct. 31 and began its investigation into Princeton’s admissions process.
Li said he wants to broaden the discussion about affirmative action in admissions policy and is not interested in transferring to Princeton.
“There is much dialogue about race issues along black and white lines, but it often seems that Asians are ignored,” Li said.
Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said Princeton is working with the Office for Civil Rights to examine the case.
“We consider applicants as individuals and the University does not discriminate against Asian Americans,” she said. “It’s difficult to admit a class from among thousands of excellent applicants.”
Cliatt said Princeton admitted approximately half of all applicants with perfect SAT scores last year.
Yale College Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said Yale’s admission policies are oriented to holistic evaluation of candidates, taking into account all aspects of their applications as well the need to assemble a freshman class that is diverse in many different respects.
Li said he scored a perfect 2,400 on the SAT and a combined 2,390 on SAT II subject tests in calculus, chemistry and physics. While the civil rights agency is only using Li’s test scores and GPA as evidence in the case, Li said he does not believe these two pieces of information fully represent his admissions profile. In high school, Li said, he was president of the intercultural organization American Field Service, participated in American Legion Boys’ State and volunteered for a community service project in Costa Rica.
Bruce Bailey, director of college counseling at the Lakeside School in Seattle, Wash., said the use of perfect SAT scores as evidence of discrimination is not likely to help his case.
“Anyone who knows anything about college admissions knows that scores are only one part of an application,” he said. “I’m sure Princeton and Yale can fill their classes up with people with those kinds of scores.”
Bailey said the vast majority of students who apply to highly competitive schools like Yale and Princeton are qualified candidates, and thus admissions committees must consider a much wider range of indicators than just grades and test scores.
Li said his case is based on a study of admissions processes published by three Princeton researchers in 2004, which found that while elite universities gave African-American applicants an advantage equivalent to 230 extra SAT points and Hispanic applicants 185 points while making admissions decisions, the schools placed Asian-Americans at a disadvantage equal to a loss of 50 SAT points.
Li said he was aware of the discrimination revealed by the report before he applied to Princeton.
“Before I’d even applied, I had known about this discrimination,” Li said. “When I found out I was wait-listed, I had been hoping to get rejected so I would have legal standing to file the complaint.”
Two of the three researchers conducted another study on “disaffirmative action” in 2005, which found that Asian applicants to elite institutions would be the “biggest winners” if race were not a factor in admissions. In that scenario, the acceptance rate for Asian students would go up from 17.6 percent to 23.4 percent, the study found.
The San Francisco-based group “Chinese for Affirmative Action” supports the practice of affirmative action in education for all ethnic groups, but Asian-Americans in particular. CAA Executive Director Vincent Pan said Asians are often held up as the “model minority” — as a stereotypically high-achieving ethnic group — to supposedly prove that minorities do not need extra support, but this view is largely a myth.
Pan said his group does not accept the claim of some Asian-Americans, such as Li, that affirmative action hurts their chances of getting into college. On the contrary, Pan said, affirmative action is able to help some Asian groups, like Cambodians and Vietnamese, who often come to the U.S. as immigrants with little education.
The Executive Board of the Asian American Students Association at Princeton said in a statement Monday that the majority of the board thinks Princeton’s policy regarding admissions is basically “fair” in its evaluation of students’ applications. They said the organization is organizing a forum so that students may discuss the issues of race in college admissions raised by Li’s lawsuit.
“This topic may be a delicate issue for some, but we are glad that it has allowed students at Princeton — and perhaps at Yale as well — to think about the merits and flaws of the college admission process,” members of the Executive Board wrote in an e-mail.
Megan Chiao, a sophomore and member of the Asian American Students Association at Princeton, said she thinks the majority of students at Princeton are critical of Li’s allegations.
“I agree that the issues Jian Li raises about how Asians could be hurt by affirmative action are valid,” Chiao said. “But his specific case might not be credible because I don’t think Princeton just accepts people based on academic merit.”
Some Yale students said that although they do not think Li’s suit will be successful, the issues it raises about the admissions process need to be addressed.
Aaron Meng ’08, president of the Chinese-American Students’ Association, said that although he does not think the case has much merit, he believes it is important to draw attention to the question of whether or not Asian-American applicants are being discriminated against in the admissions process.
Meng said he thinks Asian culture has taught students to place more emphasis on studying than on partaking in creative activities, which may put Asian-American students at a disadvantage in the admissions process. Asian-American students may also be disadvantaged by their approach to college admissions preparation, rather than any discrimination in the process itself, Meng said.
But Lily Dorman-Colby ’09 said she thinks discrimination may have occurred in Li’s case because college admissions officers strive to create ethnic diversity in spite of the fact that Asian-American students perform better on standardized tests and have higher grades.
“It’s getting to be a tricky situation for schools because, in order to represent the country as a whole, they are actually being discriminatory toward Asian Americans,” she said.
Alexis Fitts ’08 said she was surprised by Li’s hope that he would get rejected so he would be able to file the suit.
“It seems like a really bizarre way of applying to college if he was really taking the process seriously,” she said.
Since the complaint was made public, Li’s case has received national attention from The Wall St. Journal, ABC’s “20/20” and the online journal Inside Higher Ed.