Federal investigation reveals cultural stereotypes Princeton used during admissions

The Department of Education has cleared Princeton University of claims of bias against Asian and Asian-American applicants, but did uncover some evidence the school’s admissions officers have referred to cultural stereotypes when evaluating candidates.

As part of its investigation, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights reviewed 529 randomly selected applicant files, which included comments from at least two Princeton admissions officers.

“OCR’s initial review of 529 randomly selected applicant files indicated that in a few instances, comments on reader cards revealed isolated assumptions about the cultures and educational systems of Asian nations and regions,” the letter stated. “However, OCR’s file review also found instances of similar assumptions made about the cultures and educational systems of non-Asian nations and regions of the world.”

The comments included below — regarding an applicant from Hong Kong and two applicants from Singapore — were cited as examples of regional stereotyping:

  • “[Applicant] is a bit of a puzzle. He was very likeable when I met him, but very hard to know. Perhaps HK [Hong Kong] cultural background and family background means he’s a tad guarded, but there was a quirkiness I found endearing…Not sure he would s.o. [stand out] among the HK crowd. Tough to take over some others at this point.”
  • “Well, she’s bright, meticulous, and has been successful at [secondary school]; distinction in ELA and has more creativity and open mind[edness] than most from Singapore (from her [school] experience).”
  • “Even by Singaporean standards of taciturn, I’m not getting the sense that [the applicant] is a favourite @ [secondary school]. All admire her high music ability & eagerness for learning, but when they call her driven, it almost comes across as a character flaw (or perhaps it’s seen as such bc it’s for an interest in music).”

The OCR letter notes that this type of comparison was seen in how readers evaluated international students from non-Asian countries as well, as demonstrated in these comments about an applicants from the country Georgia.

One comment stated: “Unfortunately, although he ranks at top of class, not at top of our pool, I worry a lot about his ability to perform very well in complete English curriculum (evidenced in his rambling, frustrating writing and low vocabulary); we’re going to see better, even out of Georgia.”

The investigation also found instances where readers or alumni interviewers made comments about Asian stereotypes, the letter states, including “noting that an applicant is quiet or shy.”

These traits, though, were also applied to non-Asian applicants, such as a Mexican-American applicant who was described as a “relatively quiet youngster” and a white applicant who was described as a “Quiet kid but contributes.” An alumni interviewer who spoke with an African-American applicant noted the student was “easily the most at ease and friendly minority applicant we have ever interviewed.”

Asian-American students may still be at a distinct disadvantage when applying to highly competitive colleges due to stereotypes, according to Sara Harberson, a former Ivy League admissions dean.

“For example, there’s an expectation that Asian-Americans will be the highest test scorers and at the top of their class; anything less can become an easy reason for a denial,” Harberson wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in June. “In the end, holistic admissions can allow for a grey zone of bias at elite institutions, working against a group such as Asian Americans that excels in the black-and-white world of academic achievement.”

We reached out for Princeton for comment on the stereotyping uncovered by the Education Department, and the school gave us the following statement: “We appreciate your interest in this subject, though we have nothing to add.”

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