Just a few months after the Harvard anti-Asian discrimination trial opened in court, the college cheating scandal brought our nation’s college-admissions system into spotlight again. With conspirators across six states and a slew of top-tier schools, the case exposes layers of structural injustices inherent in the current college-entrance process. Flexible test schedules were handed out to able students masked with learning disabilities; test administrators shamelessly inflated SAT/ACT scores for clients’ children; college athletic coaches took millions of dollars and recruited ineligible applicants; and conspirators falsified the students’ ethnic identities to exploit race-based affirmative action.
In a nation where personal integrity goes hand-in-hand with institutional checks and balances, this repugnant scam challenges our collective virtues.
As a first-generation immigrant who was only able to escape extreme poverty through meritocratic education, I am disturbed by the self-seeking and detrimental actions of the rich and powerful who bought their children’s way into good schools. The flip side of their gaming the system and taking short cuts for their children is other children from ordinary families being robbed of much-needed, fair opportunities. This is clearly a slap in the face to the American dream, which promises that each American citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve prosperity and success through hardworking, determination and initiative.
As a community leader at the forefront of Asian-American communities’ fight against racial discrimination in college admissions, I want to point out that Asian-American children from working-class families suffer the most from this broken college-admissions system. Like many others who are disadvantaged, they can neither afford test-prep lessons, nor participate in costly extracurricular activities. They are also taken advantaged by the rich and powerful as this scandal revealed. On top of that, they are further discriminated against due to unlawful racial stereotypes, covert quotas, and higher standards, all of which are prevalent in many competitive colleges in their consideration of applicants.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Price of Admissions: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” Danial Golden precisely identifies many social groups with a “hook” (advantage) in getting into America’s elite colleges: alumni and the super-rich can use claim the legacy status, sports talents become athletic recruits, and black and Hispanic students can ride the train of race-based affirmative action. The only ones left out by this system of special recruits are working-class Asian Americans, who are shackled by both economic and racial inequalities.
In particular, the racial quotas and higher admissions standards imposed by Harvard and many other selective colleges have created overwhelming study burdens, stress and depression among Asian-American children, which resulted in suicide in some of the worst cases. Over the last seven years, 10 students from Henry Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California ended their own lives.
The college admissions scandal and the Harvard trial prove: America’s college admissions-system is unfair to working-class American families, especially those from Asian-American communities. To make it fair, I propose the following three principles.
First, the system should be primarily merit-based. This is supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. According to a 2016 Gallup Survey, most Americans (70 percent) believe colleges should admit applicants based solely on merit, rather than take into account applicants’ race and ethnicity (26 percent). This favorable public opinion is further validated by a 2018 Pew Research Center survey which finds that most Americans (73 percent) say colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions. In the same survey, a majority also reject the use of legacy, athletic, gender and other non-educational criteria.
Second, to effectively help socioeconomically disadvantaged children, we should transition affirmative action policies in college admission from being race-based to being socioeconomic-based. Given that the meritocratic principle applies in most cases, schools should leave a reasonable percentage of admissions slots for certain eligible students from poorer neighborhoods. After decades of implementation, the race-based approach has fallen short of improving educational opportunities and quality of poor black and Hispanic communities.
Despite affirmative action, statistics indicate blacks and Hispanics are more underrepresented at top universities than they were 35 years ago. Worse, American elite colleges abuse affirmative action to recruit minority students from new immigrant or well-off families for window-dressing, keeping most poor minority students growing up in inner cities or underserved rural areas outside their doors. In October 2017, a group of black students from Cornell protested the fact that the school admits too many African and Caribbean black students — but not enough African Americans. The social-economic-based affirmative action is the better way to go.
Third, the system needs to be transparent and objective. The process today is largely opaque, convoluted by too many subjective criteria. The college admission scandal clearly evidences how these non-comparable standards such as athletic experience can be easily abused. Authoritative surveys, summarized above, confirm that most Americans support the use of objective criteria such as GPA, standard tests and volunteer hours. To eliminate the loopholes exposed by this scandal, the transparency of the admissions system need to be improved across our nation’s colleges. Corruption cannot survive in a transparent and fair process.
When our society is increasingly divided across racial, ethnic and economic lines, only an admission system based on meritocracy, transparency and compassion for the truly disadvantaged can rebuild the trust of American people and help restore the American dream.
YuKong Zhao is president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, which leads Asian-Americans’ fight against Ivy League colleges’ discriminatory admissions practices.