the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Allen Zhou ’23
On Feb. 3, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice notified the U.S. District Court in Connecticut that it would drop the case filed by the Trump administration against Yale University, which alleged that the institution was illegally discriminating against Asian-Americans and white applicants. Another similar case, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University, was adjudicated by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of Harvard, and now the case is heading toward the Supreme Court. Both of these cases have been closely observed and debated by Asian-American students and parents across the country. Front and center of the allegations is the question of whether using a set of subjective criteria to achieve desired diversity goals constitutes racial discrimination. Admittedly, the moral choice between Affirmative Action and "Race Blind Policy" forced upon us by the supporters of these cases has significant consequences to our higher education system. However, I caution my fellow Asian-American citizens not to be distracted by this dilemma while ignoring the real culprit of the current biased system.
College has increasingly become an indispensable step in everyone’s journey towards financial stability. Particularly, to many Asian-American parents, a degree from top schools such as Harvard and Yale has been long perceived as a ticket to upper-class American society – a vindication of multi-generational efforts in climbing through the so-called ‘bamboo ceiling.’ Succumbing to this halo effect, Asian communities hold a degree from Ivy League schools and institutions alike to have higher intrinsic value than a degree from a less-prestigious college or university. This pushed Asian-American students to apply to these top schools in disproportionately high numbers, and nearly every one of those applicants with excellent credentials. But the admissions results have been frustrating. As statistical data revealed in the Espenshade Report, Asian students need to score approximately 50 to 280 points higher in the SAT than any other ethnic group just to achieve the same admission result. Harvard’s admissions data reviewed by the plaintiffs’ lawyers reveal that, in comparison to other alumni interviewers, staff of the school's professional admissions team intentionally marked down Asian applicants on their social and personality traits such as likability, courage, and kindness. As a result, with all else equal, an Asian student’s probability of being admitted is two to four times lower than other ethnicities. The stakes are high, the evidence is concrete, and the outrage is understandable.
However, before jumping to any conclusions, we must consider the other side of the argument. As we can all understand, students from Black and Brown communities have far less access to many resources and therefore have to work much harder to achieve the same level of success as Asian or White students. Since having racial quotas is illegal, using an implicit set of criteria to give disadvantaged minorities a leg up seems a well-justified alternative to achieve social justice. In that sense, I strongly support the decision of these schools; however, let’s examine what they have been doing in parallel to these Affirmative Actions. Among all the applicants, there is a category labeled as ‘legacy’ and ‘developmental.’ These are either students with parents or relatives who are alumni of said school or those who have donated vast sums of money to said school. In top, elite schools, this category of applicant has a two to three times higher chance of being admitted and eventually makes up around 15% of the campus population. Compared to Black, Brown, and Asian students, legacy students are usually from well-connected, high-net-worth families. These unfair methods of entry clearly illustrate the very hypocrisy inherent in the systems of these top schools. While they claim to support and embrace equality and diversity through affirmative action, by still allowing such unfair practices, which are based on the privilege of the students who could afford to do so, shows the lack of commitment to these causes. This also goes to show that, instead of wasting time, money, and effort to attack Affirmative Action, which has legitimately aided minorities, these angered parents should be targeting the nepotistic practice of legacy and developmental admissions, which only serves to perpetuate the cycle of social inequality.
Some economists advocating these self-interested admission practices claim that these top schools do so to maintain their financial prowess to fund their cutting-edge programs as well as to subsidize disadvantaged students. The truth is, their capability of generating donations and growing endowments doesn’t require them to tie any admissions decisions to alumni or donor actions. Using Harvard University as an example, it has an endowment of more than $40 billion that is earning on average above 7% annual return, while they only spend less than $2 billion annually to cover the school's budget – less than 5% of the endowment. Simple math will tell us that their endowment will grow in size perpetually even if they stop taking in any donations from now on. If these schools cannot maintain a coherent standard for promoting justice and equality, they should be prohibited from receiving government funding. Those taxpayer dollars can be better used at other places to create more opportunities for disadvantaged minorities. So, why do they still need these exorbitant amounts of money? It is to maintain their image as the most elite of the elite. By receiving donations from important political, artistic, and athletic figures, they can maintain their ‘brand’ to attract more and more of those individuals. Asian parents see this, and thus also want to belong within this social elite class, driving more and more Asian students to apply.
Overall, while Asian-American students are currently at a disadvantage compared to other minorities, Affirmative Action should not be blamed. The self-serving social image created by these top elite schools drives a disproportionately high percentage of well-qualified Asian American candidates to their applicant pool, which exacerbates the level of systematic bias towards them in the name of diversity and social justice. The fundamental hypocrisy lies in the legacy and developmental admissions category which further tilts the playing field towards those well-connected and wealthy families. That should be the focus of our society right now: to repair the broken system and to grant equal access to all.