Equity or Equality? Affirmative Action is Far from Perfect, But It's the Best We've Got

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

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In the past few months, a news story about affirmative action has been continuously catching my eye. The public nonprofit group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), who believes that racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are “unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional,” has been in staunch opposition to affirmative action. SFFA has filed a case against Harvard University (SFFA v. Harvard), arguing that the university is intentionally discriminating against Asian Americans through affirmative action, which is defined as the policy of promoting the education and employment of members of groups who have historically suffered from discrimination.

More specifically, the case has a larger spotlight on the Civil Rights Act, as SFFA believes that Harvard University has broken the law by not complying with the act. With the case on a fast track to the Supreme Court, it’s almost certain that a ruling on the case could have a ripple effect on diversity within school campuses and how universities select and accept students.

Fewer than 7 percent of Harvard applicants are accepted into the school—unless they’re Asian American. Then, the percent admitted is even lower—in 2017, 5.6 percent of Asian American students that applied were accepted. Case files from the school show that Asian American students are subjectively marked lower in the “personality” category, a section of the student’s applicant where officiants that interview students rank them on “positive personality” traits such as kindness, courage, respectability, and likability, even though the Asian American students consistently score higher in the academic and extracurricular categories.

Students for Fair Admission accuses Harvard of unconstitutionally discriminating against Asian American applicants by “penalizing their high academic achievement as a group while giving preferences to other racial and ethnic minorities,” and that Harvard’s admission method amounts to an illegal quota system. Asian American applicants effectively have to score higher on standardized tests to be given the same admission “weight” that students of other minority races are given with lower scores. Harvard’s argument in the case is that the several thousand students that apply have perfect standardized test scores and GPAs, but Harvard only has room for about 2,000 students in a freshman undergraduate class; the university argues that “it takes high scores in multiple fields to get in.”

This affair has created a widening gulf between the Asian American communities, especially between Chinese Americans and other Asian groups. Support for race-based preferences has plummeted among Chinese Americans, from 78 percent in 2012 to 41 percent in 2016, while support for affirmative action remained unchanged at 73 percent among other Asian American groups during that same period, surveys found.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, many of my Chinese counterparts no longer support affirmative action. But despite these statistics, I still do. While the practice of affirmative action may be flawed, it is still the best system we have here in America to foster equity in the long run. According to Census Bureau data, Asian American applicants’ families—especially Chinese and Taiwanese Americansappear to be more wealthy and have a more enriched educational background than the rest of the American demographic. Furthermore, there is a strong correlation between income and education. Having resources would translate into advantages for doing well on standardized tests and in extracurriculars. Based on their privilege, Asian Americans with upper middle-class backgrounds would already have a huge educational advantage and wouldn’t necessarily need the benefits of affirmative action.

Because UCSD is a public university and is located in California where the practice is banned, our student body didn’t experience affirmative action and is (theoretically) awarded admittance based on merit. In 2016, 39 percent of the undergraduate students were Asian American and another 31 percent were Caucasian, with 10 percent of students being undeclared races/ethnicities, leaving only 20 percent for other minorities. It’s easy to see that the UC application system has created a large majority of Asian American and Caucasian students on campus.

Data taken by UCSD concerning the incoming undergraduate class of 2016 shows that the average SAT test scores of Asian American students was 1381, which was noticeably higher than those of other ethnicities. However, this trend mimicked that of students in the same undergraduate class who were within the high income group bracket set by UCSD. These students had an average SAT score of 1351—60 points greater than the next bracket of medium-high, 112 points higher than medium-low, and 197 points above the low income bracket students.

Although we’re students at UCSD and don’t encounter blatant affirmative action, we are still experiencing the effect of race on achievement when it’s compounded with socioeconomic status, which significantly impacts large aspects of the college application process, such as the SAT. As previously said, Asian Americans as a whole have been shown to be wealthier and have a higher education level than other groups. Being Asian American and being in the “high” income bracket sets some students at an automatic advantage that translates into a significant leg up in the college application competition, which leads to the low percentage of disadvantaged ethnic groups at UCSD. The practice of affirmative action keeps college campuses from becoming skewed towards one ethnicity and preserves diversity by giving students from all different backgrounds the chance to succeed. The achievement gap that results from socioeconomic status and race determined at birth is too large to bridge; students of all races have never stood on equal ground when applying to the UC system.

In the end, it’s up to the Supreme Court to make the decision between equity and equality. And although it may not directly affect students already enrolled in college, this decision could drastically change college admissions in the future.

Nora Lyang is a Staff Writer for the Opinion section of The Triton.

The positions stated here do not necessarily represent the opinions of The Triton, any of its members, or any of its affiliates. We welcome responses to opinion pieces. If you’d like to submit a response, or comment on a different issue affecting the UC community, please submit here.