The Ethics of Fracking
What Ever Happened to Ethics at Johnson & Johnson?

Is it Ethically Proper for Asian Students to Lie on Their College Applications?

Asian Students Discriminated Against in College Admissions

Let me say up front I am putting the issue of affirmative action aside for the purpose of this blog which is to evaluate the ethics of college admission policies that discriminate against Asian students.

Perhaps you’ve heard about Lanya Olmstead who was born in Florida to a mother who immigrated from Taiwan and an American father of Norwegian ancestry. Ethnically, she considers herself half Taiwanese and half Norwegian. But when applying to Harvard, Olmstead checked only one box for her race: white.

“I didn‘t want to put ’Asian’ down,” Olmstead says, “because my mom told me there’s discrimination against Asians in the application process.” For years, many Asian-Americans have been convinced that it‘s harder for them to gain admission to the nation’s top colleges.

Studies show that Asian-Americans meet these colleges’ admissions standards far out of proportion to their 6% representation in the U.S. population, and that they often need test scores hundreds of points higher than applicants from other ethnic groups to have an equal chance of admission. Critics say these numbers, along with the fact that some top colleges with race-blind admissions have double the Asian percentage of Ivy League schools, prove the existence of discrimination.

The way it works, the critics believe, is that Asian-Americans are evaluated not as individuals, but against the thousands of other ultra-achieving Asians who possess a work ethic second to none. (It is well known in academic circles that Asian students work hard, spend long hours studying, and strive for excellence in most everything they do).

I have previously blogged about the decline in the work ethic of American students. All too many prefer to play games with their iPhones, text or tweet their friends and family, or watch videos and programs on their laptops. Entertaining oneself has replaced working hard for the sake of working hard – to achieve more and to advance society.

Let’s return to the dilemma of Asian students. Amalia Halikias is a Yale freshman whose mother was born in America to Chinese immigrants; her father is a Greek immigrant. She also checked only the “white” box on her application.

“As someone who was applying with relatively strong scores, I didn’t want to be grouped into that stereotype,” Halikias says. “I didn’t want to be written off as one of the 1.4 billion Asians that were applying.” Her mother was “extremely encouraging” of that decision, Halikias says, even though she places a high value on preserving their Chinese heritage. “Asian-American is more a scale or a gradient than a discrete combination. I think it’s a choice,” Halikias says.

But leaving the Asian box blank felt wrong to Jodi Balfe, a Harvard freshman who was born in Korea and came here at age 3 with her Korean mother and white American father. She checked the box against the advice of her high school guidance counselor, teachers and friends.

“I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of trying to hide half of my ethnic background,” Balfe says. “It’s been a major influence on how I developed as a person. It felt like selling out, like selling too much of my soul. I thought admission wouldn’t be worth it. It would be like only half of me was accepted.”

Other students, however, feel no conflict between a strong Asian identity and their response to what they believe is injustice. “If you know you’re going to be discriminated against, it’s absolutely justifiable to not check the Asian box,” says Halikias.

Wait a minute. This sounds like it is OK to do something wrong because you know something wrong is being done to you. As my mother taught me, two wrongs don’t make a right. If I conclude that lying on one’s college application is wrong, even if it “only” refers to the ethnicity question, then I shouldn’t do it. Ethical people act on principle from a foundation of what they judge to be right or wrong. Our beliefs about what is right and what is wrong develop from a variety on influences including our family upbringing, religious beliefs, peer influences, community, and so on. The point of ethics education is to teach young people that there are commonly accepted standards of behavior that should be followed in all actions and decisions including, trust, respect, fairness, caring, responsibility and accountability, to name a few. Integrity is the whole of ethical behavior because it relies on principles-based decision making.  

It’s unfortunate that Asian students may be discriminated against by some colleges and universities because these students belong to an over-achieving group. It seems to me we should try to rise up those without a strong work ethic (i.e. American students) to the level of those with one (Asian students). The wrong message is sent to all students when some with better credentials are denied admission because they are disproportionately over-represented in the student body.

Ethics is about how you treat other people. Let’s not forget the “Golden Rule” that is the foundation of religious belief – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, would those making college admission decisions want to see their sons and daughters denied admission because their race or religion is already over-represented? I think not.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, December 22, 2011