Why Race Should Remain a Factor in College Admissions

By Michael Brosnan


A recent New York Times article noted that an organization named Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard University for race discrimination in its admissions practices. Such lawsuits pop up occasionally. But the twist this time is that Asian Americans, not whites, are the ones who feel cheated.

The article’s lead focuses on an Asian-American student, Austin Jia, who was rejected by Harvard (which has a 5.4 percent acceptance rate) and ended up at Duke University (which has a 9 percent acceptance rate). Jia, as it turns out, isn’t taking part in the suit. He was just willing to speak about his feelings of deep disappointment. Although he also says he likes Duke, it’s the idea of working hard to be an outstanding high school student only to be rejected at institutions that hurts. Jia was particularly upset that students with lower GPA’s and SAT scores were accepted to Harvard.

Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, told the Times, “It falls afoul of our most basic civil rights principles, and those principles are that your race and your ethnicity should not be something to be used to harm you in life nor help you in life.”

While I agree with the statement, I wish Blum would turn his attention to the serious forms of institutionalized racial discrimination in housing, jobs, public precollegiate education, the criminal justice system, health care, and elsewhere that actually do cause harm to many and help others because of their race. But in the case of Harvard, making admissions decisions based on a host of qualities and qualifications, including race, does not amount to harming people or to giving others unfair advantage.

Does it hurt to be rejected? Sure. Is it discrimination? No.

The students involved in the lawsuit say they are taking part because they feel Harvard policies amount to setting quotas for the number of Asian-American students admitted each year. They believe that if admissions came down to “merit” alone, far more Asian Americans would be admitted.

For its part, Harvard’s admissions office makes it clear that it does not have quotas for any group. At the same time, Harvard defines “merit” more broadly than the simple ranking of students by GPA’s and standardized test scores. Similar to the admissions office at just about every competitive college and university, Harvard seeks each year to build a freshman class of students who (a) have the ability to succeed at Harvard, (b) are truly interested in what Harvard has to offer, and (c) bring something to the mix that will make Harvard a highly engaging learning community.

There’s a good reason for Harvard to do this: learning in a diverse community is better than learning in a monoculture. This is not wishful thinking; it’s an empirical truth.

Also, since graduates of colleges and universities will be living in a multicultural nation and world, they are better off learning in a diverse community when possible. This is particularly true in an era in which our precollegiate schools are highly monocultural, created and maintained in large part by real acts of racial discrimination.

College and universities have more or less painted themselves into an uncomfortable corner by seeking prestige. They do this because perceived prestige drives up the pride of association and, thus, corresponding interest and financial support. But by sidling up to the likes of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, colleges and universities tend to give the impression that SAT scores, GPA’s, AP courses completed, etc., matter most in the admissions process. They also play the less-than-admirable game of encouraging as many applications as possible, knowing that having a very low acceptance rate makes them appear special — elite, important, desirable.

But Harvard and other colleges and universities also balance these less-than-admirable practices with some quite admirable practices and other fairly practical ones.

If Harvard is going to have a biology department, a Celtic studies program, a business school, an education program, etc., it obviously needs to admit students who are interested in these various programs. In 2016, only 5.4 percent of the students admitted to Harvard were undecided about their majors.

If Harvard wants to have successful sports teams — and it does — it needs to consider athletic ability as an admission factor, at least for a percentage of students. It also considers the geographical mix of students — which currently includes every region of the nation and numerous countries — knowing that a diversity of regional perspectives will deepen learning. For obvious reasons, along with other colleges and universities, it also pays attention to gender.

Harvard, as reported in the Times, also wants to admit students who have “the ability to work with people of different backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives.” This cultural mix includes socioeconomic status and race. For reasons that reach back to the founding of this nation, race is the most challenging and challenged criteria. Some will argue that it’s fairer to have race-neutral admissions policies and simply let the racial mix be what it will be naturally. But it’s clear that race-neutral policies would, in fact, favor whites over other races. By examining the “whole person,” as Harvard does (as best it can, given the flood of applicants each year and the limited time to review each application), a college can determine college potential, readiness, commitment, academic interest, extracurricular interest, etc., and in doing so build a dynamic community of learners.

Harvard, in short, argues that to ignore race would diminish the “excellence” of a Harvard education.

I agree.

The one admissions practice, at Harvard and elsewhere, that is worth debating is the practice of admitting legacy students — children or close relatives of alumni. But even here, in being critical of the practice, the tendency is to suggest that Harvard is playing some sort of sneaky, elitist game. It’s not. The legacy students who are admitted are all qualified for admission — but not all qualified legacy students are admitted. The problem of top-tier colleges and universities admitting the well-educated children of alumni, as one article points out, is society’s problem more than Harvard’s. Which is to say, in the United States today, money provides greater access to quality precollegiate education. Wealthy children also have greater access to test preparation, opportunities for extracurricular activities, as well as access to high-quality health care and food. The wealthy are good at placing their children in top colleges because money provides huge advantages. If we are really concerned about this, we should show greater concern about the growing wealth divide in the nation and reexamine our commitment to quality public education across the socioeconomic spectrum.

At Teaching While White, we believe that the best way for colleges and universities to have fair admissions policies is to consider a broad range of qualities and qualifications. We also believe that this holistic approach is the right way to ensure the best possible learning community. Given this, our goal is to encourage and support white educators in serving students well across the range of races and cultures in their preparation for post-secondary education. When it comes to lawsuits such as the one by Students for Fair Admissions, we also encourage white educators to be clear in their support for racially diverse school communities — why it’s both educationally and morally right. This means understanding and articulating the value of racial and other forms of diversity in learning. It also means being willing to engage in conversation with those who claim discrimination. The research is clear: diverse school communities are better learning communities. As the research also makes clear, creating and supporting diverse learning communities is also a moral imperative because of historical and ongoing racial discrimination that primarily hurts black and Latino communities.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, also writing in the New York Times, makes the latter point crystal clear: “Affirmative action has proved to be one of the most effective tools for expanding opportunity and promoting diversity for students of color. Race-conscious admissions policies have made campuses across the country more representative of our society. In doing so, they have helped remedy inequality created by centuries of discrimination.”

Ifill also points out that affirmative action efforts have not resulted in equal access for black and Latino students — which nationally is around 5 percent in top-tier colleges and universities. As disconcerting as this is, black and Latino students fair even worse in states that have abandoned affirmative action policies.

We get that Asian-American students who are rejected by some of the top-tier colleges and universities they apply to would be frustrated. But we’d also note that Asian Americans have the highest percentage of educational attainment. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, “While 36 percent of whites, 23 percent of blacks, and 16 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or more, 54 percent of Asians do. Furthermore, while 14 percent of whites have advanced degrees, 21 percent of Asian Americans do.”

Much of this, no doubt, is attributable to individual effort and cultural commitment to education. But there are other factors involved, including access to better precollegiate schools. The quality of school one attends in elementary and high school, it turns out, has a huge impact on college attendance. This is true even within the Asian-American community.

“The huge inequalities between people in different racial categories are s of the most pressing challenges for public policy in the 21st century,” write Nathan Joo, Richard V. Reeves, and Edward Rodrique, of the Brookings Institution.

Holistic admissions policies do far more to address these inequities than race-blind policies, which have the tendency to maintain the status quo. Those who dig deeply into the data will see this — and should encourage Harvard and other colleges and universities for doing what they can to contributing to a more just and vital nation.


For the Record:

Harvard’s class of 2021 is 14.6 percent African American, 22.2 percent Asian American, 11.6 percent Hispanic and 2.5 percent Native American or Pacific Islander, according to data on the university’s website. It’s not a precise representation of the United States, but it’s certain a fair one.

Duke University is about 14 percent Asian American, significantly lower than Harvard’s. On the other hand, Asian Americans currently make up 5.6 percent of the U.S. population — which means they are overrepresented at both Harvard and Duke.

Emily Choi, an Asian-American student at Harvard, was asked by the New York Times about her experiences at Harvard. She replied: “I firmly believe in affirmative action. The diversity at Harvard has been key to my learning, and I think that if there weren’t so many people of different backgrounds, I wouldn’t be forced to think about things in new ways.”