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Asian Americans debate meritocracy versus diversity in college admissions.
As the U.S. Supreme Court weighs affirmative action in college admissions, Helena Seo is keeping a close eye on it at her home in northern New Jersey. A rising junior at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, she supports affirmative action.
“I feel like I benefited from affirmative action as an Asian woman,” said Seo, 19, who is Korean American.
In Orlando, Chinese immigrant Mike Zhao has been leading a group of Asian Americans against affirmative action. His son Hubert was rejected to the two Ivy League schools he applied to, Columbia University and Cornell University, despite having a 5.3 weighted grade point average and being a debate team leader when he applied eight years ago. Peer students with lower grades and fewer leadership posts were accepted to top 20 schools, Zhao recalled.
“Colleges have betrayed the original meaning of affirmative action," said Zhao, 60, who is with the Asian American Coalition for Education.
The issue of race-based admissions that may help boost applicants of certain races is dividing the Asian American community. At the core of the division are the two cases before the Supreme Court about racial discrimination in college admissions at Harvard University and at the University of North Carolina.
The lawsuits were brought by an anti-affirmative action group called Students for Fair Admissions, which was started by conservative strategist Edward Blum. The cases will impact how colleges and universities can use race in admissions going forward and possibly lower the number of Black and Hispanic students at elite colleges.
Blum's group targeted the two schools saying they dash the promise of a colorblind society and discriminate against Asian Americans.
As Asian Americans are not a monolith, the issue draws varying opinions, sometimes with a generational divide. Immigrants often believe that meritocracy should rule. Second- and third-generation Asians tend to support the need for diversity.
With the college admissions process under scrutiny, more Americans say high school grades and standardized test scores should matter in the admissions process than say the same about other factors. According to a 2022 study by Pew Research, 93% of people polled say high school grades should be at least a minor factor in admissions decisions, including 61% who say they should be a major factor. Grades are, by far, the criteria the public says should most factor into admissions decisions, the survey said.
Affirmative action was first instituted by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. This initiated a requirement that federally funded contracts and programs have plans for employing minorities. Affirmative action grew over time to include women for placement in higher education enrollment as well as employment.
Elite college admissions in America is shrouded in secrecy, with admissions officers seeking a holistic review of the candidates. The admissions rate to Harvard in 2021 was 4%.
Nine states have banned the consideration of race in college applications: Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington.
Whether colleges and universities should consider race or ethnicity as part of the admissions process has been a widely debated topic in higher education. The ruling could have implications for diversity on college campuses and in the workforce.
“However the Supreme Court rules, colleges and the student populations that they seek through affirmative action are likely to emerge a little more wary,” said LaMont Jones, senior editor of U.S. News and World Report, known for its annual college rankings. “Going forward, schools determined to achieve institutional diversity goals will have to be more creative in their strategies to recruit such students."
In the lawsuit filed against Harvard that specifically identifies Asian American applicants, Students for Fair Admissions says that the school violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act that receives federal funding from discriminating based on race because Asian American applicants are less likely to be admitted than similarly qualified White, Black and Hispanic applicants.
In a statement in October, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said diversity is part of the college experience.
"When Harvard assembles a class of undergraduates, it matters that they come from different social, economic, geographical, racial, and ethnic backgrounds," Bacow said. "It matters that they come to our campus with varied academic interests and skill sets. Research and lived experience teach us that each student’s learning experience is enriched by encountering classmates who grew up in different circumstances."
Zhao does not take issue with the holistic approach to elite college admissions. What he is offended by is the stereotyping of Asian Americans, with Harvard giving applicants a lower score.
At the trial in October, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito grilled Harvard's lawyer on the school's use of the personal score. The trial revealed evidence that Asian applicants received lower “personal scores" during the admissions process.
"The record shows that Asian student applicants get the lowest personal scores of any other group. What accounts for that?" Alito asked. "It has to be one of two things: that they really do lack integrity, courage, kindness and empathy to the same degree as students of other races; or there has to be something wrong with this personal score."
Seo disagrees with the assessment that Asian Americans have been discriminated against in elite college applications. She explains that Ivy League schools want “something different.”
“A lot of Asian American students come from the same region of America, have similar characteristics or test scores,” Seo said.
Seo recorded an SAT score of 1520 out of 1600 and engaged in a range of hobbies at Dwight-Englewood, a private school in New Jersey. She lives in Fort Lee, a borough where 40% of its residents identify as Asian American.
Seo thinks her essay helped her stand out, touching on the personal perseverance angle of not giving up; as well as a binding early decision to Dartmouth indicating she would commit to enroll early if accepted, and not look at any offers from other colleges.
Diversity of people and ideas are important in the college experience, Seo said.
Zhao believes that in elite college admissions, finding the best future scientists, entrepreneurs or other leaders should be the main criteria, regardless of race.
“To achieve the American dream is meritocracy,” Zhao said.
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