Issues: Race in college admissions


Thora Pearson

art by Thora Pearson

Imagine on Ivy Day, the day the eight Ivy League schools announce their admission decisions, a valedictorian and varsity captain with a perfect ACT score is rejected. Imagine he is left asking what else he could have accomplished to be accepted into these prestigious schools. Imagine the answer is not in his abilities, but his race.

Harvard’s Affirmative Action policies are under fire after Students for Fair Admissions accused them of discriminating against Asian-Americans. Abby Peterson, KHS college counselor, said the secretive nature of elite schools’ admissions processes opens them up to lawsuits.

“I can easily see how there could be cases built against these schools as far as discrimination,” Peterson said. “It is such a mystery why student A is admitted over student B when both students are exactly alike.”

This mystery caused one group of Asian-American applicants, backed by the anti-affirmative action organization Students for Fair Admissions, to file a lawsuit in 2014 claiming Harvard rejects a disproportionate amount of qualified Asian-Americans. The plaintiffs argued the high rates of rejection for Asian Americans overstep legally considering race in the application process, and even suggested they border on illegal racial quotas.

“I believe there are quotas for all students,” Peterson said. “I don’t think there are quotas for just Asian-American students. There’s percentages and quotas for every section of the world and every human being.”

Harvard said in a statement it considers race in admissions, but only as part of a holistic examination of the applicant. Part of this examination is also facing scrutiny: a study of 160,000 student records by Students for Fair Admissions found Asian-American applicants on average outperformed other ethnic groups in academics and extracurriculars but received the lowest personality rating from the admissions department. The rating measures applicants on their likability, kindness and being “widely respected” by their peers. According to Mia Chitwood, junior and Asian-American, Harvard’s personality rating is flawed.

“It’s nice for college campuses to have diversity because it makes them look good,” Chitwood said. “At the same time, if applicants have the qualifications they should be admitted and not have to worry about being unfairly evaluated.”

William Dailey Jr., member of the Mound City Bar Association which represents African-American lawyers, does not think Harvard intentionally rates Asian-Americans lower on the personality tests but may do so unintentionally as admissions officers are naturally drawn to applicants similar to themselves.

“Implicit bias may sometimes result in people being overlooked who may not hit the likability of the admissions committee,” Dailey said. “On the flip side, the Harvard approach is the right approach because they look at more than just the standardized test.”

Dailey endorses Harvard’s policy of considering race because it ensures disadvantaged students are not eliminated based on low standardized test scores. He believes Students for Fair Admissions’s true goal is to end affirmative action policies.

If these policies are ended, colleges would have to lean more heavily on objective standardized tests instead of race and subjective personality factors. Dailey argues these tests are not truly objective because they favor students with access to better education.

“Up until recent years it has been universally accepted that standardized tests and GPAs are either good or the best criteria [in college applications],” Dailey said. “[This is] because the universe was composed of people who had historically done well by that criteria.”

In an attempt to rectify the conditions which led to African-American and Latino students becoming disadvantaged in education, the Supreme Court ruled ethnicity could play a role in college admissions in the landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. This case declared racial quotas unconstitutional while allowing affirmative action programs to continue. Affirmative action programs opened up college opportunities for disadvantaged populations by allowing colleges to consider the ethnic backgrounds of students.

Dailey fears if the Supreme Court reverses its previous decisions and rules against Harvard and affirmative action, fewer disadvantaged students could attend elite universities. Chitwood, however, believes middle ground can be found between holding Asian Americans to fair standards and giving equal opportunities to other minorities.

“I feel like it wouldn’t hurt other groups as much as it would benefit Asians,” Chitwood said. “They would still be admitting minority groups but it would stop the discriminatory practices against a certain race.”

What is being done:

Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard is scheduled to go on trial at a U.S. district court in October. The Boston Globe reported that experts predict the case will be decided by the Supreme Court. If SCOTUS rules in favor of Students for Fair Admissions, colleges would no longer be able to consider race in admissions, a change 77 percent (283/368) of KHS students support.