commonapp
Photo: Sam Holland

The Asian American Coalition for Education — an organization that has called Ivy League admissions policies discriminatory against Asian applicants — has come out against another key player of the college admissions process: The Common Application.

In a letter addressed to 2009 Graduate School of Education doctoral graduate and Common App Executive Director Jenny Rickard, the AACE called on the Common App to "stop the practice of subdividing Asian American applicants into 10 subcategories."

This is the second time in recent weeks that the Common App has been mired in controversy. In October, the software development company CollegeNET accused the Common App of running "a collusive cartel" in the admissions industry. In response, Rickard called the lawsuit launched by CollegeNET "frivolous."

Currently, in the optional, self-reported demographics section of the Common App, students who indicate that they identify as Asian are asked to choose from 10 different subcategories based on national origin, such as China, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. 

These subcategories are the most specific of their kind on the Common App. In comparison, white applicants are asked to choose from three subcategories: Europe, Middle East, or Other. Black applicants are asked to select an option from U.S./African American, Africa, Caribbean, or Other.

"There is no more difference between two people originally from Thailand and China, respectively, than two people originally from Ireland and Slovakia," wrote the letter from the AACE. "If using similar standards across all ethnic groups, [the] Common Application could easily use 50 or more subcategories to reflect the ethnic and ancestral origins of ‘Caucasians.'"

Raymond Wong, a lawyer and a member of the AACE Board of Directors, said the Common App's unequal number of subcategories is a violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

Although the demographic information section is optional, Wong said most students feel compelled to complete the section anyway out of a fear of being perceived as "uncooperative."

"Not every student is a lawyer," Wong said. "They’re going to worry that, ‘If I don’t do it, it may be a strike against me.’"

Wong added that members of his family had personally been impeded by the admissions policies of elite schools like Penn. 

"My daughter, who did very well in school — much better than a Caucasian — did not get admitted to UPenn," Wong said. "But there was another girl who got admitted — a Caucasian — and her grades were far less, and you wonder why."

"You have all these legacy [applicants], all these sportsmen, you have first [generation] to go to college," Wong said. "The numbers and the policies of admissions are really stacked against Asians and it’s really unfair."

The Penn Admissions Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

College sophomore Kamal Gill, the vice chair of external affairs of Penn's Asian Pacific Student Coalition, said he disagrees with AACE's letter. Gill said the opportunity to provide a national identity beyond a racial classification helps paint a clearer picture of an applicant.

"The term ‘Asian American’ is a political identity," Gill said. "In terms of the cultures within Asia and their histories, they’re completely unique. They’re completely different. Even within India itself, I could literally drive 40 miles away outside my village and not speak the same language or have completely different values."

Gill added that he would be in favor of the Common App increasing the number of subcategories for all racial groups, rather than decreasing the number of Asian subcategories.

Mitchell Chang, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, made similar remarks to Inside Higher Ed

"Education researchers have been calling for disaggregated data for Asian-American groups for over a decade," he said. "When it comes to degree attainment, we have learned through empirical research that there are significant differences between different Asian ethnic groups in the U.S., i.e., Chinese vs. Cambodian. Lumping all Asians together masks those differences and makes invisible important differences in educational opportunity."

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