College Admissions are a Crapshoot and Affirmative Action is Good

affirmative action

One of the earliest exposures to affirmative action I’ve had was on Glee, when the half-Japanese gym teacher Ken Tanaka is trying to convince the kooky guidance counselor, Emma Pillsbury, to go out with him by saying “they can’t fire me because I’m a minority, so I’ll always be able to provide for you.”

As a middle schooler, the idea of affirmative action had felt fundamentally unfair for me, particularly because the common refrain I had always heard as both a girl and a person of color was that I had to work twice as hard to get half as far as my implied white male counterparts. The idea that some other, less high-performing person [read: black, Hispanic, or Native-American] who fit the perfect underrepresented niche a college had been looking for had “taken my spot” felt a lot like discrimination of its own.

But it’s easy to think that way when you’ve grown up among the manicured lawns (the Homeowners Association is very strict about grass length) and high-achieving, violin-playing Ivy League (or at least UC Berkeley)-bound students of Orange County. Having always been in advanced classes where more than half the kids were Asian, I rarely felt like a minority in my city, nor had I ever experienced discrimination. I was so naïve that it never even occurred to me that affirmative action was a program created to benefit those who haven’t had the same opportunities as me.

Affirmative action wouldn’t exist if everyone started on the same footing with the same debate teams, AP classes, SAT tutors, and access to well-funded public schools or private feeder schools. Money, race, and social class are constantly holding people back. It’s up to affirmative action to serve as a kind of equalizer to recognize those with potential who haven’t had a chance to thrive in their less-privileged environments. Just because someone didn’t pop out a 2300 doesn’t mean that they aren’t traditionally intelligent or unable to succeed in high education.

So many people who score highly only do so because they’re familiar with the test’s structure and wording after having taken dozens of practice tests with their tutors. Maybe someone couldn’t join Future Business Leaders of America because they had to work two jobs after school to earn money to take care of their uninsured sick parent. Maybe they never really got the chance to succeed because the teacher looked at a brown kid, assumed they weren’t as smart, in turn treated them as such, which then led them to fulfill a self-fulfilling prophecy where they’re not achieving as highly as they’re able to. A more bare-bones CV doesn’t always reflect a lack of drive or potential.

Affirmative action is the best opportunity to raise our collective human capital by using our resources on those who would utilize their education in the best way and create a life for themselves that wouldn’t be possible had it not been for their “big break.”

The ultimate problem is the fact that public education students in poorer districts lack resources like counselors, advanced classes, and even lunches. These are problems that could all be solved with government funding. (Ensuring that a student is nutritionally-fulfilled is also another prerequisite to making a good student.) Compensating for disadvantages needs to start early so that students have more time to see themselves as people who actually could one day attend college.

Poor students have the best chance at upward mobility if they attend a top college. The problem is that not as many apply either due to economic circumstances or a lack of access to information. Despite some early difficulty they may face because of the lack of resources for low-income, first-generation college students, they end up performing just as well as their rich counterparts. It’s not a favor anyone is doing these students; it’s merely giving them the right to the education they’ve always deserved; giving them something they’ve always been entitled to.

I’m a Korean-American student with the fortune of having been accepted into a great college that matched my preferences when I matched theirs. The key thing to remember is that when it comes to fulfilling the certain niche a college wants to fill, it’s all luck and timing. If a bunch of freshmen oboe players just enrolled last year, and you’re a prospective oboe player for Bates College, you might be out of luck. But who knows, the whole oboe section might be graduating from William & Mary the year you apply, so you may have better luck there.

A Caveat on Race, Class, & Quotas

Most of my stances are going to be from the viewpoint of someone who is most familiar with the admissions game on the level of the more prestigious colleges and universities. It’s practiced by middle or upper-middle class Asian and white people either by having read too many College Confidential threads in the past, direct experience, and/or having read coverage of this topic from many reputable sources throughout the years. Some of my points may not carry through to community colleges or other institutions.

To speak frankly, Asian-American girls do seem to be the most “screwed over” by affirmative action.

Because the program carries its roots in redressing the disadvantages faced by women and minorities (who in the past have included Asian students), it’s also led to a quota system that can limit the number of students they can accept from each demographic.

If a college wants to keep its girl-boy ratio 50/50, even though girls tend to perform better academically as a whole, they will have to reject some of the high-performing girls to “make room” for the lower-scoring boys. Similarly, to ensure that there aren’t too many domestic Asian students (although they need that international student money), they set a limit on what percentage of the students can be Asian and need to reject qualified applicants.

At a school like CalTech, which doesn’t practice affirmative action, 50% of the domestic students are Asian while the national percentage of Asians in America is 5.6%. While they are generally overrepresented in many elite colleges, I do question why schools that do practice affirmative action still ensure that white students comprise the majority of domestic students when Asian students often have higher scores and grades and colleges aren’t particularly itching for more Asian applicants.

One possibility could be that many of the white students are legacy students or children of donors who have their own requisite quota and get into school through a different pipeline. Another possibility could be attributed to the homogeneity of many Asian students’ applications. There’s only so many piano-playing pre-meds who want to find the cure for cancer a college can accept. While there are a number of exceptions, in my experience, Asian parents do push their children towards “safer” paths like finance, engineering, medicine, and law and away from low-earning fields like the social sciences and arts.

But I can’t rule out the notion that colleges could be simply uncomfortable with the idea that a traditionally white school could be overrun by equally economically secure Asians. Or that the more racist alumni would be dissatisfied with the racial makeup and cease to make donations.

College counselors who believe they have found the perfect formula for getting a student into a prestigious college by listing a template for activities have it wrong.

When colleges say they want a “well-rounded student body,” they’re not talking about wanting every student to be “well-rounded” (though they do need some of those). They want students who are experts in their own interests; the intellectual diversity kicks in when they’re searching for burgeoning experts in each field offered by a university.

My belief is that the quota system isn’t flawed because it’s “racist” or “sexist.”

While racial diversity is a crucial part in creating a well-balanced college campus with a dynamic student body, colleges should seek it by putting a greater emphasis on class-based affirmative action.

It’s flawed because racial diversity is a surface-level inclusionary tactic that doesn’t lead to diversity of philosophy, class, or income.

Let’s be real here: even if the upper-middle class lacrosse player doesn’t get into Georgetown and attends his local flagship university UConn instead, there’s a very little probability that this will negatively impact Logan’s earning potential and leave the upper-middle class income bracket. By having been born into a well-off family, he’s already set for life. There’s little need to protect people who are already cushioned by money and connections because there’s diminishing returns when it comes to investing in someone who already has so much.

Are we neglecting Logan? Um, no. Last time I checked, he just became secretary of his service fraternity and is getting along well with his teammates in club lacrosse. He went to a professor’s office hours because he had difficulty understanding integrals without feeling like he was a burden to the professor.

Logan has been helped enough; he’s fine.

The college admissions bias isn’t entirely based on social class, but it’s very much related to that, and by extension, race when you consider how overrepresented minorities are in lower income brackets. I’d argue that race-based affirmative action without accounting for income or class is flawed. An affirmative action that relied more on class would actually breed richer diversity because it would include those from minority races across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Upper-middle class denizen, who make up the greater population of prestigious college campuses, are generally quite similar because they all share the same cultural capital, meaning they have the same reference points, watch the same movies or listen to the same jazz or read the same New Yorker articles, and wear the same brands.

Regardless of race, they’re a relatively homogenous group in thought and cultural exposure.

If affirmative action was created to foster diversity within campuses, enrolling the same person in different shades isn’t changing much besides making the brochures look a little better. While race certainly plays a role in everyone’s lives, I’d posit that an upper class Hispanic person would relate more to an upper class Asian person than a working-class Hispanic person.

Whatever the reason, the Latinx and African-American students are not the ones who are “stealing” spots from qualified Asians the way Republican politicians would like you to think. To them, because the optics of saying that brown people are stealing from white students is not a “good look,” they’re bringing Asians into the mix and acting as though they’re trying to protect a helpless minority group.

It’s a huge mistake to paint all Asian students in such broad strokes, when the college admissions game is dominated by Chinese (+ the people who get mistaken for Chinese), Indian (+ the people who get mistaken for Indian), Japanese, and Korean students. When admissions teams refer to “Asian students,” they’re referring to the kind brought in by educated parents (engineers, doctors, accountants) or born in the US to educated immigrant parents who push them or at least give them to tools to achieve academic success. You might think that Tiger Parenting is an exclusively Asian characteristic, but parents of means regardless of race don’t like to slack off on their kids and risk their chances of getting into Princeton.

When they emphasize the high performance of Asian students, they’re really talking about the high performance of higher-income students.

On the whole, Asians make more than their white counterparts and other racial groups because many recent immigrants entered the US by choice and to seek better opportunities like grad school and STEM jobs as opposed to escaping dire circumstances. Again, these groups are often the same kinds whose college-bound children don’t qualify for financial aid and send in impeccable applications.

This characterization neglects the ethnic Asian groups like the Cambodian, Hmong, and Laotians who live in higher poverty rates and are underrepresented at college campuses.

The other problem here is that Asians can be complicit or participate in the racism that hurts other minority groups. They want to claim racism when favorable to them, but then in turn commit acts of prejudice against other minority groups and claim that the black and Hispanic students are “stealing” unearned spots or follow black people around their stores to make sure they’re not stealing merchandise. We like having it both ways, I suppose.

But Asians are prejudiced against each other, too. Ethnocentrism is very much alive. Due to a history of colonization and war, the older Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese have strained tensions. Inter-marrying between these ethnicities or any ethnicity other than one’s own is looked down upon among many Asians.

Admissions are limited by numbers, sorry!

At the level of elite institutions, people get into college and rejected from college for all sorts of reasons. There are too many 4.0/2400s for Harvard to accept every single one of them, even if they also have stellar extracurriculars and letters of recommendation from senators. There are, in fact, so many high-achieving students that some of them even have to settle for (gasp!) Duke. I mean, come on.

Getting into college is not a reward for good behavior and self-restraint. Simply having the choice to be good or bad and having the choice to do your homework or not is a huge privilege. The only real prize you get is the satisfaction of having done well in the task you set out to do.

Relying on external validation and acceptance only breeds dissatisfaction because the world is fundamentally unfair and will rarely reward you the way you believe you “deserve” to be.

There are too many good students and not enough colleges that are perceived as good. Someone can get a good education regardless of what college they attended. What an elite institution often offers is better financial aid (prestigious private universities have the deepest pockets), more access to powerful companies and/or alumni, and a name in your resume that potentially serves as a hook to a hiring manager who just wants confirmation that you have basic work ethic. Having the right specs for XXY College should be evidence enough.

The sordid truth is that in certain high-earning industries, people care a lot about the connections their potential workers have and the kind of cultural capital they carry. Having attended an Ivy League-level school is the fastest indicator that the potential recruit is a wealthy member of the upper or upper-middle class just like them and their clientele. (Another reason colleges should be more economically diverse.) But for now, the clear class-based bias companies practice is out of our control.

Something to remember is that the discrimination faced by Asian-Americans, the Latinx, and Black communities are all fundamentally different but rooted in the same xenophobia and racism.

Most black people in America have ancestors who were literally stolen from their homes in Africa and forced to toil under strangers without pay for hundreds of years. Even after slavery had ostensibly “ended,” they never received any reparations for their unjust treatment and they ended back indebted to the same landowners through the sharecropping system. They had been inhibited from voting or gaining any kind of political control since the nominal end of slavery.

Hispanic and Latin-Americans in America, given its proximity to the United States, are likely perceived as less “other” than Asian-Americans, for instance, but still seen as “invaders” by the kinds who want to waste billions in taxpayer money to build a wall. Yet they still want to benefit from the economic effects of immigrant labor.

Asian-Americans seem to be doing well on the surface—higher incomes, higher levels of education. But the “Bamboo Ceiling” persists. How else do you explain the fact that while Asians are so well-represented in the tech industry, they’re barely in any of the top positions at companies like Google and Apple?

Asians are not interested in serving as a pawn in service of “Becky with the Bad Grades” at the expense of other minorities. That’s not to say we should keep our noses down and not call out discrimination when we see it. But we should work to empower other groups and acknowledge their struggles as well.

A diverse student body is one that is beneficial towards everyone and one that creates a more intellectually and socially stimulating atmosphere. It’s not possible to solve problems without input from people who stand from every vantage point. Diversity on campus isn’t an issue of “political correctness.” It’s part of the path we take to solve most of our world’s inefficiencies and fissures.

Cover image via KPCC

Also published on Medium.