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(This story was originally published in print on Oct. 17, 2019).
From bribery to unfair admission, the fairness of acceptance and merit of students in the admissions process of universities seems to continuously be under investigation. Most recently, the Student for Fair Admissions—a nonprofit organization that participates in cases and litigation involving race-conscious admissions at college universities—accused Harvard University of intentional race-based discrimination of Asian Americans, according to the New Yorker.
The case focused on whether or not this system unconstitutionally burdened Asian American students by holding them to a higher standard of acceptance than students of other races and nationalities, according to NPR. Nearly a year after its initial trial, District Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard University implementing a race-conscious admissions system, despite allegations that their process was discriminatory.
Ruling in favor of Harvard, Burroughs said in an NPR article that “ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race-conscious admissions.” Diversity on college campuses is crucial for students to learn from their peers through understanding different perspectives. Whether or not discrimination occurred in the admissions process at Harvard, the implementation of affirmative action in the admissions process allows universities to consider underrepresented minorities to create a more diverse student population.
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IN ADMISSIONS
The Legal Information Institute defines affirmative action as laws, policies, procedures, guidelines and practices designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination against individuals on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin for employment or acceptance in educational programs by providing special consideration to historically excluded groups.
According to the Atlantic, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in many court cases regarding affirmative action at universities that the benefits of diversity justify the use of race as one consideration among many in the admissions process in higher education, although implementing racial quotas in the admissions process is illegal. This ruling means that the decision to admit a student cannot solely be determined by race, but race may be a factor that contributes to the admission of a particular student.
In the Harvard University case, Harvard’s admissions claims that its admissions system includes a process of reviewing applications that includes many factors: teacher recommendations, awards, essays, SAT and ACT scores, alumni interviews, extracurricular activities and athletics, family income, life experience and leadership, as well as race, ethnicity and background. By including race and ethnicity, Harvard claims to consider applicants as a “whole person,” not just a test score, grade or essay.
IMPACTS OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
Many universities, not only Harvard, implement race-conscious processes in considering whether or not students are admitted in their programs to better represent minority groups. Although college enrollment and completion rates continue to rise at elite universities, students of African and Hispanic descent are more underrepresented at top universities than they were 35 years ago, according to the New York Times. The Times reported that by banning affirmative action, the underrepresentation of minority groups would only worsen.
Additionally, the Washington Post reported that standardized tests are racially biased toward Asians and Caucasians, as there is a strong correlation between income, education, and ethnicity and race. According to the Post, while poverty is prevalent across all races in the U.S., Asians and Caucasians are, on average, wealthier and have high educational attainment rates. This gap reveals the potential difficulty for those with less access to test preparation resources, as well as opportunities to retake expensive standardized tests.
Underrepresented minority groups in the U.S. are not less capable than majority groups to achieve acceptance at elite universities. There are many pieces of a person’s identity, including race and ethnicity, that form who they are. Test scores are not true representations of people. By taking into consideration the difficulties and successes of a specific person based on their background, universities will be able to better consider students for their academic programs—creating more diverse college campuses.
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION TO ENCOURAGE DIVERSITY
While Harvard University’s admissions process causes people to question the effectiveness of race-conscious admissions, banning affirmative action altogether would be detrimental to fostering diverse university populations. Affirmative action in the admissions process of universities encourages the acceptance of a diverse population of students and allows minority groups to be better represented in the application and admissions process.
If racial and ethnic backgrounds of students are not considered in the application process at universities, then the admissions process neglects to consider the holistic student. The value of students should not be solely determined by test scores or income. Colleges must take into consideration the qualities and backgrounds that shape students into the people that they are today. For many, racial and ethnic backgrounds drastically inform identity—impacting their struggles and their strengths.
Allowing students of all backgrounds to attend universities through considering ethnicity and race creates the opportunity for all students to have an education that is informed by diverse perspectives and views. Race-conscious admissions benefit every student, as universities seek to educate their students about myriad views and ideas. The most effective way to teach the importance of diversity is by encouraging diversity on campus.