The Admissions Race

As high school seniors prepare to send in their college deposits by May 1, they may breathe a sigh of relief that the admissions process is finally over. With the number of college applications proliferating and admissions rates plummeting, the process has never been more competitive and stressful. For those hapless few stuck in the limbo of waitlists, however, the pressure and anticipation continues.

Perhaps no one has suffered more from the dreaded waitlist than a certain high school friend of mine. My friend was, for lack of a better term, a statistical aberration. He possessed a bizarre talent for shading in bubbles. On his first sitting, he clocked a perfect score of 2400 on the SAT Reasoning Test. No one-hit wonder, by the end of junior year, he had added perfect scores of 800 on two SAT Subject Tests and 5’s on eight AP exams to his repertoire. With a 4.0 GPA, multiple club leadership positions and an amicable character, he was well regarded by both his teachers and peers. Needless to say, his college expectations were high.

Then, April came. The initial blow was more of a curious surprise than an outright disappointment. My friend was waitlisted by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, his four top college choices. Remaining optimistic, he would joke that the waitlist is even more selective than the admitted class, after all, the odds of being waitlisted by all four schools was smaller than being admitted to any given one. After that, however, it was a slow defeat by attrition. That year, Princeton accepted zero students of its waitlist. Harvard accepted about only 25. Eventually, Yale and Dartmouth bid their farewells, and in the end, he was rejected by all but one of the schools that he applied to regular decision.

Towards the end of summer, I had the chance to ask my friend his thoughts on the whole admissions game. He responded, visibly embittered, “It’s frustrating. It’s absolutely frustrating to know that I was so close and that the smallest factor could have tipped the scales in my favor. I worked for this, and I deserved more than disappointment. I didn’t deserve to disappoint my parents, my teachers, my friends and myself. I didn’t deserve to be waitlisted four times and rejected four times over. At least now, I can move on with my life. Yet, I know that I could’ve gotten in if only for that smallest factor…if only I hadn’t quit soccer, if only I had taken speech and debate more seriously or if only I hadn’t been born Asian.”

His answer caught me off-guard and struck me as uncharacteristically petty. Admissions to the most elite institutions are never guaranteed, regardless of how strong the applicant may look on paper. With so many qualified and unique applicants, the process is an absolute crapshoot, and no one “deserves” or is entitled to admission. The fact that my friend was waitlisted at colleges of such caliber was an achievement in of itself. Nonetheless, it struck me as odd how he was waitlisted by all, and not admitted to a single one, of his top choices. Perhaps, there was some truth to his final words. Would he still have been rejected by all four colleges had he been a different race?

We will never know the answer, for it would be impossible to produce an identical applicant, save for race, in an identical admissions year. As I began researching the issue, however, I came to the vague conclusion that being Asian certainly did not help his candidacy. After taking serious time to ponder the empirical data and observations, however, I realized what a tremendous understatement that was, and I began to feel the same bitterness and indignation that he manifested in his comments.

These are the facts. In “The Opportunity Cost of Admission Preferences at Elite Universities”, Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y Chung of Princeton Univ. state, “African-American applicants receive the equivalent of 230 extra SAT points (on a 1600-point scale), and being Hispanic is worth an additional 185 SAT points. Other things equal, recruited athletes gain an admission bonus worth 200 points, while the preference for legacy candidates is worth 160 points. Asian-American applicants face a loss equivalent to 50 SAT points” (1). In another 2009 study of more than 9,000 students who applied to selective universities, Espenshade along with Alexandria Walton Radford found that “white students were three times more likely to be admitted than Asians with the same academic record” (2).

After California passed Proposition 209 in 1996, which prohibited universities from considering race in admissions, Asian first-year enrollment at UC Berkeley increased from 37.3 percent in 1995 to 43.6 percent in 2000 to 46.6 percent by 2005. At UCSD, it increased from 35.9 percent in 1995 to 46.9 percent in 2005. (3)

According to Ron Unz, writing in the New York Times, “After the Justice Department closed an investigation in the early 1990s into charges that Harvard University discriminated against Asian-American applicants, Harvard’s reported enrollment of Asian-Americans began gradually declining, falling from 20.6 percent in 1993 to about 16.5 percent over most of the last decade … But these same years brought a huge increase in America’s college-age Asian population, which roughly doubled between 1992 and 2011” (4).

No source, however, matters more when discussing affirmative action than the Fourteenth Amendment: “No State shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The question of whether affirmative action admissions policies are constitutional will be addressed by the Supreme Court in its decision of Fisher v. University of Texas. The ruling may have tremendous implications for the admissions policies of both public universities and elite private colleges, which depend on substantial federal funding.

The case before the court is difficult and complex. I am in no position to comment on how the Court might or ought to rule. I was, however, interested in how the Fourteenth Amendment and the Court’s constitutional precedent applies to specifically Asian-Americans. The Supreme Court will not base its decision on 4.8 percent of the US population. The focus of the oral arguments of Fisher was not on Asian-American college applicants, although they were mentioned tangentially. Had it been, though, I find it extremely difficult to imagine how race-based affirmative action, as applied to Asian-Americans, is at all consistent with America’s constitutional values.

There are competing interpretations of the Equal Protection clause. One interpretation, as articulated by Justice Harlan in his dissent of Plessy v Ferguson, is that the “Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” This interpretation is closer to the interpretation that the Supreme Court professes to use. The Supreme Court applies strict scrutiny, the most stringent standard of judicial review, to laws and policies that discriminate based on race. Such laws and policies are presumptively unconstitutional, but can be justified if they serve a “compelling state interest” and are “narrowly tailored” to achieve that goal. While the Court’s task of weighing government interests against constitutional rights is formidable indeed, strict scrutiny is a troublesome solution.

“Compelling state interest” and “narrowly tailored” are by no means objective tests and are ultimately determined by the justices’ discretion. It is extremely ironic that the Court first applied strict scrutiny in Korematsu v United States to uphold the constitutionally of Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. I question the worth of a concept so malleable that it can be manipulated to condone so flagrant a usurpation of constitutional rights as Japanese internment. Nonetheless, whereas the Court’s decision in Korematsu is widely condemned, strict scrutiny continued to serve as constitutional precedent in upholding the affirmative action policies of the Univ. of Michigan Law School in Grutter v. Bollinger and continues to serve as the framework for analyzing the affirmative action policies of the Univ. of Texas in Fisher.

How do race-based affirmative action admissions policies pass strict scrutiny? What compelling state interest do they serve? The opinion of Grutter v Bollinger held that the compelling state interest served by affirmative action is diversity, to achieve a “critical mass” of “underrepresented minorities so that they do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race.” I find the Supreme Court’s answer to this question extremely problematic, considering how affirmative action is applied to Asian Americans. In practice, underrepresented minorities refer to Black and Hispanic students. This practice is predicated on an entirely arbitrary categorization of race. Burma and Korea are more different in terms of language, politics, culture and history than the United States and Mexico. While the Common Application has a circle to bubble in for Hispanic, it has only one circle for Asian. The idea that Asian-Americans do not benefit from affirmative action, despite being a racial minority, because they are “over-represented” betrays a total lack of appreciation for the scale and heterogeneity of Asia.

Hypothetically, if a university were to declare that it had achieved a critical mass of underrepresented minorities with 30 percent of its student enrollment, when in fact, 28 percent were Hispanic and only 2 percent were Black, it most certainly would not have achieved the appropriate level of diversity. It is obvious that to place Blacks and Hispanics into a single racial group would be an erroneous and arbitrary classification contrary to the goal of diversity. Yet, the Common Application insists on applying an equally arbitrary classification by failing to distinguish among Asians of different origins.

Then, I came to Amherst. Growing up in an upper middle class, suburban neighborhood made it easy to comfortably cling to the idea of meritocracy: that all else equal, the only thing that ought to matter is one’s ability and effort. At Amherst, however, being exposed to such a diverse body of people and perspectives made it impossible to ignore how parochial my prior point of view was. After all, all else is never equal. Gradually, I developed an appreciation for Amherst’s tremendous achievement: how in less than four decades it has transformed itself from a predominately white, all-male institution to a racially, culturally and socioeconomically diverse co-ed community. Affirmative action made that possible.

The notion that the Constitution should be colorblind now strikes me as distasteful. To be colorblind is to ignore three hundred years of history. If not colorblindness, what does the Fourteenth Amendment require? While the Court professes to examine affirmative action with strict scrutiny, I suspect that it is motivated by a different interpretation of equal protection: that the Fourteen Amendment requires the Court to look beyond the written law and recognize the social reality and that equal protection allows the state to acknowledge de facto discrimination and remedy the vestiges of historic discrimination.

Under this framework, the folly of a pure meritocracy becomes evident. The purpose of higher education, especially at America’s most selective schools, is not only to produce able graduates but also to serve as an avenue for social mobility. Empirical data demonstrates that students from low-income households gain most from an education at a selective college (5). To achieve that end, holistic admissions are absolutely necessary because “objective” factors, such as grades and standardized test scores, are poor indicators of ability and effort, as they fail to account for an applicant’s upbringing and environment.

Nonetheless, the practice of race based affirmative action, when applied to Asian Americans, is a crude tool in addressing the social reality and history. The fact that median household income for Asian Americans is higher than any other racial demographic makes it easy to dismiss the claim that Asians suffer from present and historic discrimination to the same extent as Black and Hispanic Americans. Yet, how does preferential admissions treatment for an applicant whose parents immigrated from Argentina in the 1990s do anymore to remedy the vestiges of historic immigration than providing that same treatment to an applicant whose Japanese grandfather was interned during World War II, or whose great-grandmother was prohibited from attending an all-white high school in Mississippi (Lum v. Rice) or whose Filipino grandfather could not marry the woman he loved because a 1953 Utah statute declared marriage between a “white and…Malayan…void.”

Race is an inadequate indicator of disenfranchisement. The best indicator that a person suffers from present and historic discrimination is persistent poverty. When attempting to redress societal inequality, admissions committees should not flag applicants of certain races but rather applicants who come from persistently impoverished households and neighborhoods. Affirmative actions ought to be based on class, not race. Current admissions practices are especially unjust to groups that happen to fall under the umbrella of Asian, yet suffer from the same social inequities as under represented minorities. Among the ten largest Asian groups in the United States, the average income of five of the groups (Vietnamese, Pakistani, Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong) falls below the national average. While combining admissions information with financial aid information is problematic (for example, a particularly unscrupulous school may disproportionately reject low-income applicants to increase revenue), an explicitly socioeconomically conscientious admissions process at America’s most elite and well-endowed institutions would more effectively target truly disadvantaged applicants.

A couple of months ago I spoke again to my high school friend and tactlessly brought up his admissions ordeal. Reflecting on his experience, his response surprised me. “As a high school senior, there are things that you think that matter that really don’t, and there are things that you don’t value that you should. Going to an Ivy League school is one of those things that really don’t matter. Going to a school with a diverse group of students, cultures and ideas is one of those things that you should value. If not for holistic admissions, I never would have met the range and variety of characters that I have in college. If not for holistic admissions, many, myself included, would not have the courage to share their unique and different perspectives. If not for holistic admissions, I very well may have ended up at Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Dartmouth, when Amherst is where I belonged all along.”