A lawsuit filed against Harvard University in November by a group called Students for Fair Admissions alleges that the school’s admissions policy discriminates against Asian-Americans. A key component of the argument is the higher average SAT scores of Asian-American students who are admitted to elite U.S. colleges and universities. To make its case, the suit notes the findings of a study of seven top public and private colleges: “Asian-Americans needed SAT scores that were about 140 points higher than white students. ... (I)f a white student needed a 1320 SAT score to be admitted to one of these schools, an Asian American needed a 1460 SAT score to be admitted.”
I suppose this information ought to earn me a spot in the disgruntled “Rejected by Harvard” alumni association. Truth be told, I never thought my 1520 SAT score and many extracurriculars guaranteed me a spot at the school. But I had hoped that Harvard might have had use for a quirky Korean-American who wrote her college essay on knitting. Instead, I attended Vanderbilt University on a full-tuition, affirmative-action-based scholarship. Vanderbilt historically struggled to recruit and retain students of color; I was part of the movement to help build a “critical mass” of minority students.
My story says a lot about how affirmative action is extremely context- and institution-specific. Harvard did not necessarily need more students like me. Vanderbilt did.
The narrative that underlies the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit — that Asian-Americans need higher SAT scores to get into elite schools — is powerful. But it is also deeply misleading. It feeds the myth that elite universities have required scores for applicants and that meeting these requirements should guarantee acceptance. In reality, in elite admissions, a high SAT score is generally a necessary but insufficient condition.
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But this myth is commonly believed by many, along with a persistent belief that a perfect or near-perfect SAT score — along with the appropriate extracurricular activities, a top class ranking and great Advanced Placement test scores — can be a golden ticket to the college of one’s choice. Unfortunately, Harvard gets thousands of applications from students who meet this profile for its limited number of spots. Many will be rejected.
This is difficult and confusing news to any family that has invested significant time and energy into grooming a seemingly unrejectable applicant. The Asian-American population is tremendously diverse; almost half of Asian-Americans attend community colleges, not places like Harvard. Still, I was unsurprised to find the Harvard lawsuit filled with narratives of rejected Asian-American applicants with strong credentials.
Such stories of frustration are understandable, especially because Harvard accepts only 6 percent of applicants. But they also represent deep misunderstandings about how admission works at elite colleges. These misguided assumptions are reinforced throughout the lawsuit against Harvard. For instance, the complaint alleges that “if Harvard admitted randomly from its applicant pool, the number of Asian-Americans in its entering freshman class would be far higher than it actually is.” For numerous reasons, Harvard does not admit randomly.
Racial quotas are illegal in college admissions, but colleges can still consider race as one of numerous attributes in assessing a student’s context, as upheld in the Supreme Court rulings in Grutter v. Bollinger and Fisher v. Texas. These rulings attest that affirmative action is critical to challenging stereotypes and supporting learning environments that prepare students for citizenship in a diverse democracy.
I am deeply concerned that, with the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit, Asian-American concerns about admissions are being exploited in an attempt to undermine the legality of race-conscious admissions.
Despite the stories of disgruntled Asian-Americans documented in the Harvard lawsuit, polling data indicate that the majority of Asian-Americans support affirmative action. Numerous studies also document that Asian-American college students benefit from engaging with racial diversity during the college years, which prepares Asian-American — and all — college students to compete in a global economy. These stories are heard less in the affirmative action battle, but they are no less important.
The Harvard lawsuit seems clear-cut, arguing that well-qualified Asian-Americans are being discriminated against, just as Jewish students were in the first half of the 20th century.
In reality, the college admissions landscape has transformed radically since then, even in the past decade. We live in a time when thousands of students who score well on standardized tests will not be admitted into their top-choice institution, though most will likely gain entry to some quality institution. What we have is not discrimination but elite schools being limited in the number of outstanding students they can admit. There are no golden tickets.