Affirmative Action: A Factor in the College Process?


Alex McLaughlin

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he college admissions process looms large in the minds of millions of high school students across America. But how can the political and social tensions of today’s day and age affect the college admissions process? In Oct. 2018, an affirmative action lawsuit was filed against Harvard University on grounds of racial discrimination. Filed by an Asian-American student, this lawsuit forced the admissions team at Harvard University to publicly disclose their admissions statistics. While the trial ended in Nov. 2018, Harvard is still facing backlash for allegedly setting racial “quotas.”

To fully examine the origins of affirmative action, one must first examine the emergence of slavery, which led to discrimination against those of African descent and, after the abolishment of slavery–segregation–both official and unofficial. In 1954, segregation was outlawed and the first African Americans attended the same schools as white students. This marked the beginning of modern affirmative action, which was designed to combat racial bias and discrimination by instituting a system in which race would be considered during the admissions process. In the beginning stages of the institution of affirmative action, a system of quotas was often used in order to ensure spots were reserved for African American candidates or other students of color. In 1978, quotas were outlawed by the Supreme Court and are no longer used in the admissions process; the Supreme Court, however, did rule that race could be used as one factor amongst many when deciding admissions. That is, under the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution, race could not be used unless there was either compelling state interest or it was only used in a limited manner. Affirmative action based on these criteria has been used ever since. Still the question stands: how are ordinary high school students  affected by affirmative action? Coming from a South Asian background, I have always been told that the value of “campus diversity” would make it easier for me to get into a top-notch school. With the recent Harvard case, the debate of whether or not affirmative action really is beneficial has been reignited amongst the general public. With Harvard University ranked among the top universities in the world, it’s no question that the lawsuit filed against it has sparked such a large discussion.

The lawsuit against Harvard was filed by Students for Fair Admissions, a group fronted by Edward Blum. Blum is a activist whose ideology is that race should never be considered in any aspect whether in contracting, hiring practices, or education. The group claims that Harvard has set a racial quota on Asian American students that accepts these candidates at a lower rate than Harvard’s already strict acceptance rate. This is simply untrue when one looks at the fact that quotas were outlawed in 1978, meaning no institution, whether of higher education or not, has a legally set racial quota.

So, why is it that Asian Americans are claimed to be specifically discriminated against in the admissions process? A large part of this points to a phenomenon known as racial stereotyping. A concept relatively familiar to the general public, racial stereotyping is when a group of people of a certain ethnicity are held under a common social expectation. For instance, Asian Americans are commonly thought of as smart, hardworking individuals who excel in practically all areas of study, especially math, science, and the study of classical music. Another common one is that African Americans often come from low income backgrounds. It is important to note that recent statistics have shown that of all major ethnic groups in America (Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic/Latino, and African-American), African Americans earned the lowest income. However, one must also examine the origins of affirmative action as well and understand that in its initial stages, affirmative action was designed to allow more African American students, in particular, into educational institutions. So, while statistics concerning income by race certainly do play a part in helping underserved students enter universities, it is also designed to help minority students in general.

Should race play a role in the chances of a student getting into a university? This question is one that is largely based on opinion. While affirmative action is a great plan for admitting students who would not otherwise have the opportunity to attend a University such as Harvard, it can also be perceived as placing other students at a disadvantage. As discussed before, race is designed to be considered one factor amongst many, rather than a sole reason for admitting a student. So, while universities do not generally admit students of certain ethnicities out of solely  based on race, it can be easy to perceive it as such.

 What can Universities do to make the admissions process an equal opportunity process? Affirmative action has largely answered this, but the recent Harvard lawsuit has put these policies into serious question and leaves the American student with the lingering question: can my race make or break my chances of attending a top notch university?