Affirmative action is a flawed system, but it creates a fairer playing field for minorities and helps foster American meritocracy. While we’ve done it quite a few times over the last few days, we’ll continue defending Affirmative Action today. “The Washington Post” published an excellent editorial today, authored by Julia Sass Rubin, an associate professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and a visiting associate professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. That’s quite a mouthful of titles indeed!
The editorial concerns the signal from the U.S. Department of Justice that it intends to litigate against universities like Harvard that allegedly discriminate against Asian American applicants. As regular readers of our college admissions blog know all too well, we absolutely concur: there is no question that Asian Americans face discrimination in highly selective college admissions. But attacking Affirmative Action is a haphazard, illogical way to go about ending this discrimination, and it will end up doing more harm than good.
In Defense of Affirmative Action
In Sass Rubin’s editorial, she argues — correctly, we might add — that Asian applicants actually comprise a disproportionate percentage of incoming classes at Harvard than compared to their piece of the pie chart of the American demographic. As she states, “Harvard actually accepts a disproportionately large percentage of Asian students, who make up approximately 6 percent of the U.S. population but will comprise more than 22 percent of Harvard’s incoming class.”
One of the central arguments of groups alleging discrimination against Asian American applicants at schools like Harvard is that the standardized test scores of Asian American applicants who are denied admission are often higher than non-Asian American applicants who earn admission. These are supposedly objective benchmarks — but the problem with this argument is that admissions officers aren’t relying strictly on test scores as the basis for their decision-making (something they’re quite candid about!).
Even though the tests can help provide a measure of objectivity in admissions, they’re far from perfect. As Sass Rubin writes, “Ironically, Harvard has contributed to its current legal challenges by requiring standardized tests as part of its admission process. This helps legitimize standardized tests as an objective means of evaluating applicants. In reality, the tests favor students from families with greater wealth and educational attachment.”
Is the practice of Affirmative Action flawed? Yes. But is it the best system we’ve got here in America to foster an American meritocracy? Absolutely.
Quite often, Asian American applicants come from families with greater wealth and educational achievement than the rest of the pie chart of the American demographic. As Sass Rubin astutely points out, “The strong correlation between income, education and race/ethnicity translates the economic and educational bias of standardized tests into a racial one, giving an advantage to Asians and whites. Although substantial poverty exists among both groups, on average, Asians and whites in the United States are much wealthier and have significantly higher educational attainment than blacks and Hispanics.”
In spite of the signal from the U.S. Department of Justice, under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to litigate against the practice of Affirmative Action on the basis that the practice fosters the discrimination of Asian American applicants, we don’t foresee Affirmative Action ending anytime soon in college admissions. That’s all thanks to arguments like Julia Sass Rubin’s.
Discrimination Is Tricky, But Colorblind Admissions Does Not Work
Do Asian Americans face discrimination in highly selective college admissions? Are they often stereotyped by admissions officers? Are Asian American applicants with great scores and grades denied admission by our nation’s most elite universities? Yes. Absolutely. Yes.
But what about the discrimination that African American and Latino applicants face in highly selective college admissions? Research proves that standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are coachable, and that with great tutoring and practice, scores rise significantly. We see it all the time with our own tutoring. And in a country where many African American and Latino applicants can’t afford tutoring or don’t have the time to practice for a standardized test because they have to work a job after school, it’s easy to see that there’s larger, structural discrimination at work — significantly undercutting the argument that it’s Asian Americans who are disadvantaged to the benefit of African American and Latino applicants.
Is Affirmative Action flawed? Yes. Absolutely. Yes. But is it the best system we have? Yes. Absolutely. Yes. And while we will continue standing atop our soapbox calling for an end to Asian American discrimination in highly selective college admissions, we will also continue defending Affirmative Action. It’s all we’ve got in the hope of creating a genuine American meritocracy, which should be the ultimate goal in college admissions decision-making. And no matter what criticisms we may lay at the feet of Affirmative Action, it’s crucial to recognize its centrality in creating a fairer playing field for all minorities.
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