Dare to Speak Its Name

If nuance and complexity are the core tenets of a liberal education, why do elite colleges struggle with recognizing their place in college admissions?


For the past several decades, conservative groups have sought to undermine affirmative action in college admissions with relentless court challenges. Now the “Whites-first” Trump administration is lending its hefty weight to those efforts, according to the New York Times, with a plan to investigate and sue universities over affirmative action policies “deemed to discriminate against white applicants.”

In a cynical ploy, however, the Justice Department is fronting Asian Americans for its “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions” by reviving a claim that 64 Asian American organizations lodged with the Obama administration accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian American applicants to the benefit of — get this — white applicants!

It is no secret that college admission policies hurt academically high achieving Asian Americans, who are overrepresented on elite U.S. college campuses. Harvard University’s class of 2021 is 22 percent Asian — four times their share in the national population. The proportion would be even higher if Harvard adopted a race-blind policy. In California, which prohibits consideration of race in college admissions, Asian Americans constituted 42 percent of the new freshman class this Fall at the California Institute of Technology (and that is not counting the 9 percent of international and 4 percent of mixed race students, many of whom are Asian as well). At the University of California system, a third of the freshman class this year is Asian American, twice their proportion in the state population. The percentage is even higher at the flagship universities — 43 at UC-Berkeley and 40 at UC-Los Angeles.

The problem with affirmative action policies in college admissions is that they have always rested on a very flimsy edifice. In its landmark University of California v. Bakke case in 1978, a splintered Supreme Court ruled that “the use of race as a criterion in admissions decisions in higher education was constitutionally permissible.” Contrary to popular assumption, however, the court rejected as unconstitutional not just quotas, but also race considerations to address historical inequities. Instead, the Court carved out a very narrow exception to consider race as one factor in “a far broader array of qualifications and characteristics” for the laudable objective of encouraging exposure “to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.”

The constitutional prohibition against quotas or to rectify historical wrongs has been repeatedly underscored by the Supreme Court. In 2003 in Grutter v. Bollinger, it affirmed the University of Michigan Law School’s diversity policy, which served, it said, to promote “cross-racial understanding … better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society … and better prepares them as professionals.” Affirmative action dodged another bullet last year when the admissions policy of the University of Texas at Austin, which considered race as one of several factors, was upheld narrowly by the Court by a 4-to-3 vote.

 Affirmative action is easily defensible if colleges are willing to be honest about the character of college education and stop attempting to perpetuate a myth of meritocracy rooted around SAT scores and high school grades. Empirical evidence establishes that neither are flawless predictors of either academic performance in college or professional success subsequently in life. Furthermore, most elite colleges have historically given preference to children of alumni and major donors, kids who play obscure sports, such as lacrosse, classical musical instruments, like the cello, or partake in other affluent indulgences. And let us not forget, of course, the non-academic stream for athletes.

However loathe Universities may be to admit it, since it undermines their simplistic numerical assessment tools, education and learning are more than about just grades and scores.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out in Fisher v University of Texas last year: “Class rank is a single metric, and like any single metric, it will capture certain types of people and miss others…. A university is in large part defined by those intangible qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness …. Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.”

Ambition, creativity, overcoming adversity, originality, etc. are surely as compelling factors as SAT scores and grades at the altar of which both educational institutions and critics of affirmative action worship. Great universities don’t just churn out — nor do businesses need — robotic nerds who score well on standardized tests. It is doubtful that even the Asian Americans protesting their exclusion would be all that excited about attending a university with majority Asian American students.

Let us dare to celebrate merit in all the diverse forms of mind and spirit — grades and SAT scores be damned.

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