When we were freshmen first entering Cornell, an older student told Snoopy in a dubious effort to introduce us to the realities of campus life, “expect that not everyone in your class is going to make it with you to graduation day.” By this, he meant to prepare us for the eventuality that someone we knew would die by suicide in the four years we would be students at Cornell.
To this day, my friend’s advice still strikes me as disturbing. It bothers me not necessarily because it was untrue — indeed, Cornell has a reputation (perhaps unfairly earned) of an abnormally high on-campus suicide rate, and his words did end up being prophetic for me — but because of the cavalier manner by which they were spoken. This senior student (whom I still count as a friend, by the way) issued this warning almost dismissively; as if he had become jaded on the topic of suicide; as if he believed some baseline rate of suicide deaths should be expected; as if he thought the on-campus suicide rate statistic should just be overlooked; as if he felt that losing a classmate by suicide should be unremarkable.
The loss of a person’s life should never be treated as unremarkable. Yet, too often, that is exactly the kind of treatment that Asian American student victims (as well as other student of colour victims) of suicide face in the mainstream coverage of the larger issue of on-campus suicide. Too often, the intersection of racial identity with on-campus mental health is overlooked, and so the many Asian American student victims (and other student of colour victims) of suicide are rendered invisible.
Over the weekend, 16-year-old Mira Hu went missing in San Marino, California. Hu — a student at San Marino High School — had been dropped off at nearby Arcadia High School on Saturday to take the SAT college entrance exam. However, when her parents arrived to pick her up, Hu was nowhere to be found: hours later, she sent a text message to her brother that said Hu was running away due to the pressure of her SAT exam performance and the college admissions process.
“She is a perfect kid and everything is good, but I don’t know what happened,” Mira’s father told KTLA-TV. He urged her to return home.
Yet, perhaps it is precisely the pressure to be “the perfect kid” that could be causing anxiety for students like Mira Hu.
Cornell has a reputation as a school where the student suicide rate is unusually high, but it also has the reputation as a school where depression, anxiety and self-harm are a public health priority. Since the publication of that original report on Cornell’s Asian American suicide deaths, the administration put together the Asian & Asian American Center as one of several resources geared specifically to address our vulnerable community.
Since the publication in 2009 of his influential study (with co-author Alexandria Walton Radford) on admission patterns in the country’s elite private universities (“No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal”), Princeton researcher Thomas J. Espenshade’s data have been an oft-cited resource for the anti-affirmative action Right. In his study, Espenshade compiled GPA and SAT test scores for selective private institutions of higher education, and compared them to admission rates by race. He reported that Asian American applicants appeared to be admitted at a lower rate than White, Black or Latino peers with comparable quantitative scores. He then extrapolated that into SAT scores, concluding that a hypothetical Asian American student would require a theoretical extra 140 points on the SAT score to achieve the same probability of admission as a White peer, and a theoretical extra 450 SAT points to achieve the same probability of admission as a Black peer.
Espenshade’s work is meticulous and appears to show some sort of disadvantage for Asian American applicants to certain selective private universities; but too often, it has also been overinterpreted, misinterpreted, and misreported. Espenshade’s work is not a direct reporting of SAT score disparities at the nation’s select universities. Asian American enrollees are not actually required to score 450 more SAT points than Black enrollees: at Harvard, the gap between average Black and Asian SAT scores is a mere 190 points on a 2400 point scale.
Furthermore, Espenshade’s findings may not be applicable to public universities, which are far less selective than private institutions. It is not clear that Espenshade considered other factors that will influence selectivity, including for example nation of origin. Correlation is not causation.
But finally, and most importantly, Espenshade’s data deliberately over-simplifies the college admissions process by excluding most of the criteria upon which admissions officers base admissions decisions. By considering only applicant GPA and SAT score, Espenshade necessarily places total (and determinative) weight on these two quantifiable metrics alone, and assumes that the over 900 other factors that admissions officers consider under holistic review are simply unimportant.
There is an extremely popular New York Times infographic that Asian American opponents of affirmative action often share to suggest that elite Ivy League universities have implemented a cap quota on Asian American enrollees. In a nutshell, the infographic (shown above) illustrates that the enrollment of Asian American students at Harvard and other Ivies has fluctuated at around 16-20% for the last twenty years, while enrollment at Caltech has increased since 2000. An overlay of the growth in Asian Americans aged 18-21 suggests that Caltech’s admissions is keeping pace with the growth in the Asian American population, whereas Asian American enrollment at East Coast Ivies are being unnaturally depressed. This is the work of affirmative action, suggests the infographic.
That is, until today, when I sat down and asked myself whether or not Unz’s assertions really made sense mathematically? And y’know what, guys — turns out that everything we thought we knew about this infographic is wrong!