Harvard must end affirmative action policies

By Neena Hagen, Hayden Timmins, The Pitt News Staff

Austin Jia had a nearly perfect college application — he scored within the 99th percentile on his SAT and had a 4.0 GPA. But like so many other qualified Asian applicants, he still got rejected from Harvard.

In response to cases like this, Students For Fair Admissions — a non-profit comprised of 20,000 students and parents who oppose racial consideration in admissions — sued the university in 2015 for alleged discrimination against Asian Americans in its affirmative action policies.

Though affirmative action programs had good intentions back in the 1960s — and good results for racial minorities — today that initiative has back-fired. In recent decades, affirmative action has been more weapon against high-achieving minorities like Asian-Americans.

Former President John F. Kennedy first used the term “affirmative action” in 1961 in an executive order to prevent public organizations from discriminating against marginalized minorities.

“The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin,” the order read. “The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Universities especially have seen a social pressure to accept “diverse” applicants in recent years — which means prioritizing underrepresented minorities like blacks and Hispanics over Asians. In fact, the Obama administration released a statement in 2011 specifically advocating for more diverse student bodies in colleges — which runs diametrically opposed to JFK’s intent behind affirmative action.

“Postsecondary institutions play a unique role in opening doors for all segments of American society, including people of all races and ethnicities,” the Obama statement read. ”As a result, attaining a diverse student body is at the heart of [a university’s] proper institutional mission.”

This is exactly the kind of rhetoric that allows and even encourages discrimination against Asian Americans — Obama’s logic necessitates a quota system which bypasses qualifications and prioritizes an even distribution of ethnicities instead. Harvard, as the as one of the top-ranked college in the United States, should prioritize qualifications above everything else — as it claims to.

“Within its holistic admissions process, Harvard College has demonstrated a strong record of recruiting and admitting Asian-American students,” Harvard said in a response to the lawsuit.

But this is patently untrue. According to a 2013 unpublished internal Harvard analysis, Harvard’s class of 2017 would have been 43 percent Asian if admissions were based solely on academic criteria — but year after year, the percentage of Asians attending Harvard remains at a low 20 percent. To have the same chance for admission as other racial groups, Asians must earn SAT scores 140 points higher than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanic students, and 450 points higher than African American students.

This is racism, pure and simple.

If Harvard’s affirmative action policies admitted a higher number of financially disadvantaged minorities, then perhaps their admissions criteria would be fair. But only 4.5 percent of students at Harvard come from families below the 20th percentile for income in the United States.

So not only is Harvard discriminating against qualified candidates, it’s granting admission to less qualified candidates who grew up privileged — students who would actually be better off at schools where their abilities are comparable to the rest of the student body.

According to Inside Higher Ed, a college advice website, African Americans and Hispanics are 1.5 times more likely to drop out of college — this is in part because minorities who were admitted due to affirmative action often lag behind the rest of the class. Fifty-two percent of black students at Yale are in the bottom tenth of their class.

Instead of trying to rectify achievement gaps at the college level with affirmative action — where minority students have had 13 years in the education system to fall behind their peers — educational equality should begin from day one of kindergarten.

African American and Hispanic students spend their K-12 academic careers in underfunded urban public schools that rarely meet grade level standards — likely the reason why blacks and Hispanics score on average 200 points lower on the SATs than Asian Americans, who represent more than 50 percent of the student body in top urban high schools.

Local governments need to divert more funding to public schools — but elite colleges can contribute to this effort, too. The University of Pennsylvania — an Ivy League school like Harvard — donates $700,000 per year to its local elementary school, Penn Alexander, providing an extra $1,330 for each student. This contribution has made Penn Alexander, where 70 percent of students are minorities and 46 percent financially disadvantaged, a top-60 elementary school in Pennsylvania.

Harvard has a $35 billion endowment — so a project like this would certainly be feasible. But until it stops discriminating against Asians and starts rectifying educational inequality at the source, it can’t claim to stand up for minorities.

Write to Hayden at [email protected]. Write to Neena at [email protected].