Friday, May 29, 2015

One Asian American View of Affirmative Action

This piece first appeared in Asia Times.

Elite Ivy League schools belong to the elites, right? Turns out the answer is complicated. The lawsuit filed by a consortium of Asian American organizations against Harvard’s admission policy last Friday is attempting to address one facet of this question.

The suit contends that Asian American applicants for admission with same noteworthy academic achievement and evidence of leadership as applicants of other races are more likely to be rejected. If admission criteria were race neutral and based merely on merit, this situation would not exist, so claims the suit.

Asian Americans make up about 5.6% of the U.S. population and 21% of Harvard’s incoming freshman class, but the suit contends that without a quota restriction, the rate of admission for Asian Americans would be even higher. In the case of the University of California where race based quotas are not legal; the presence of Asian American is far higher. At UC Irvine, Asian makes up the majority of the student body.

Aside from not wanting a venerable institution of higher learning that dates back to the 17th century, like Harvard, overrun by Asians, the admissions office of Harvard and fellow Ivy Leaguers face a real conundrum.  

Some of the seats have to be reserved for the so-called legacy candidates. “Legacy” usually means offsprings of alumni who have been important financial donors to the school. Any student arriving for first day of school in a Ferrari could be presumed to be a legacy admission.

Others in the name of diversity and affirmative action are set aside for ethnic groups that are otherwise under represented, meaning the blacks, Hispanics and native Americans. These applicants would not qualify for admission if based purely on their academic and school activity records.

Unfortunately lowering the bar to admit students without the necessary grounding and academic preparation may not be doing these students any favors. Getting overwhelmed by the rigors of academic demands, they risk dropping out disillusioned and disappointed and never recover from the loss of self-esteem.

It’s fundamentally counter intuitive that under privileged kids subject to 12 years of under preparation and poor academic training can be expected to suddenly catch up and do well when plunged into an elite university. 

Just as not all kids driving a Ferrari got in the back door with a lower bar, not all blacks and Hispanics got in because of special dispensation. Unfortunately for them, others will always wonder if they got on campus on their own merit.

Admittedly questioning that sort of ambiguity is far less consequential than having an affirmative action policy in college admissions—If admitting some under qualified students can give the American society the cover to stop feeling guilty over the social injustice of depriving the kids in the ghetto a chance for a quality K-12 education and a better life.

The real solution, of course, is not at the college admission level. The real solution has to begin at early levels of education. We have to be willing to invest in quality schools at every neighborhood and for every child and give everyone an equal opportunity from the beginning.

If that goal is not realistic and realizable, a compromise solution is to establish a special preparatory school for under privileged students with real potential and desire to succeed. Let these students study intensively for one or two years and be properly primed to succeed in college.

The mission of an elite school is to attract exceptional students and generate outstanding graduates. That’s how they will maintain their reputation as a top school.

Ultimately, whether it’s a Barack Obama or a Jeremy Lin walking on campus, it’s being American to presume that they walked in the front door and belong there.

Full disclosure, my daughter, Denise, attended Harvard and majored in premed biochemistry. However, I don’t think she faced any reverse discrimination because there weren’t as many Asians applying then (about 35 years ago). After Harvard she did go on to medical school but then took on a successful career in public health.

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