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Dear Supreme Court, Affirmative Action Deserved Better

“Why was I rejected?” is the most common question students have after receiving a college rejection, and it’s a fair one. Even with high SAT scores, GPAs, and plentiful extracurriculars, the upper echelons of higher education can remain out of reach for many students like Calvin Yang. Yang was a plaintiff in “Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard,” the case where the Supreme Court made the unprecedented decision to overturn affirmative action. He was also a former BPR writer who penned an article in 2022 explaining his opposition to affirmative action. In the past few decades, affirmative action has been an easy target for scorned Asian and white applicants who believe they were unfairly rejected in favor of “less qualified,” racially diverse applicants. This is a direct response to his article from a fellow Asian American. 

In Yang’s article, one of his central arguments was that affirmative action weakened American egalitarianism by focusing on immutable factors like race rather than a student’s merit and credentials. Yet the very purpose of the policy is to rectify institutional failures to properly evaluate the worthiness of applicants. 

It is extremely difficult to evaluate merit and what one has endured to achieve their successes. While credentials like awards and honors are widely considered the best ways to quantify merit, external and fixed factors of a person’s life can unfairly influence the way they are awarded. For example, many high school students hope to receive recognition for their intellect and hard work through awards and scholarships. While it is undoubtedly important to highlight deserving individuals across all ages, many of these awards are subject to implicit or explicit biases. In 1994, the College Board was sued for designing the PSAT in a way that illegally discriminated against females, decreasing their chances of receiving the coveted National Merit Scholar designation. A multiple choice ‘Writing Skills’ section was introduced to settle the case. Unsurprisingly, the gender gap in qualifying test scores of the subsequent year narrowed by 40%. Racial gaps exist as well — almost 70% of private scholarship recipients are white, though they compose only 61% of the undergraduate student population. 

Another aspect of college applications that offers different students different opportunities is sports. Some like volleyball and skiing require significant investments of time and money for students to reach collegiate-level skill. Barring a few exceptions, this means elite athletic achievement is only accessible to those from well-resourced families. Additionally, some high schools have a “pay to play” system for sports that force students to pay a fee for sports participation. In a meritocracy, everyone would have an equal opportunity to receive recognition for their work or reach the pinnacle of athletic achievement. This is simply an impossible goal.

Yet another source of inequality is legacy admissions, which are still in place in many prestigious universities including Harvard. Harvard has explicitly stated that they give preference to legacy students and relatives of donors and faculty, defending the practice in a 1980s federal investigation into alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants in favor of whites. The university justified legacy admissions on two counts. First, they strengthened alumni connections to the university and encouraged them to give back. Second, legacy applicants were often very qualified. Regardless of the validity of the arguments, both legacy status and race are inalterable aspects of a student’s life. To allow one policy to stand while the other falls is senseless. 

All of these various factors converge around one truth: that the college admissions process is not fair and never will be. Many of the top institutions lack transparency regarding the true meaning of a ‘holistic review’, and applicants are left wondering every year on what exactly they are being judged. Different essay readers, admission councils, and interviewers can monumentally impact a person’s application in a frustratingly random way. 

In light of this, it is important to control for what factors we can. Affirmative action strengthened American egalitarianism by promoting equality of opportunity. Judging solely by credentials and merit would be fair in a perfect world, where everyone had the same access to the same resources and the same opportunities for success. The world we live in is far different, and systematic inequalities tangibly impact peoples’ daily lives. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson summarized this point well in her dissent to the affirmative action ruling: “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life”. 

Another argument in Calvin Yang’s article was that students like him were denied because “less qualified,” more racially diverse applicants were admitted instead. Yet collectively calling underrepresented applicants less qualified is part of a problematic societal perception that these students are undeserving of admission. “Implicit and overt forms of racial discrimination” were found to be a primary obstacle for Black college students in a recent study exploring why their demographic had lower college completion rates than other ethnic groups. These students were also more likely to indicate they felt physically or emotionally unsafe on campus. By frequently facing unfair perceptions of their worth and abilities, underrepresented students often struggle to feel like they belong in college. In worst-case situations, they internalize feelings of inadequacy, falling into the trap of a self-fulfilling prophecy. This identity and perception-based discrimination is exactly why policies like affirmative action are so critical. This issue is not the sole responsibility of colleges to fix; bottom-up, societal work must be pursued. However, a multi-faceted solution is often the best way to solve complex issues, and few issues are as complex as this confluence of race, diversity, and equality.

Some people argue that the stigma against marginalized students is due to the prominence of affirmative action in admissions and will decrease with the overturning of the policy. However, diversity will never stop being a point of contention, and the discourse in this college cycle is already shifting to other aspects of the process like student essays. 

Without affirmative action, more pressure than ever is now being placed on students. Those from marginalized communities struggle to encapsulate the intensity of their struggles in small 500-600 word essays, while other students feel disadvantaged for not having experienced trauma. The recent linking of privilege with disadvantage is a strange phenomenon, and one that will be exacerbated in the absence of affirmative action. As the number of applicants continues to rise—and acceptance rates continue to fall—students are becoming increasingly desperate for factors they can use to differentiate themselves. Unfortunately, for more and more students this means searching through their memories “for a trauma they think they can sell” and scrutinizing fellow students on the basis of a form of trauma Olympics. This fosters a hyper-competitive, callous high school environment while also destroying the value of the personal essay. Rather than an illustrative peek into a student’s life and unique perspective of the world, essays are now just desperate attempts to describe an applicant’s worst moments to move essay readers. This newly warped focus on ‘selling’ personal trauma precisely displays the issue with many attitudes toward diversity and the college admissions process. Trauma and pain alone do not equal diversity, and essays should not be the only way an applicant expresses their identity-based struggles. Students who have not experienced trauma are not unfairly disadvantaged just as students not from under-represented communities are not unfairly disadvantaged by affirmative action. 

Am I saying affirmative action was perfect? Like every other aspect of the college application process, absolutely not. But the justifications for which it was overturned — to adhere to a “colorblind Constitution” that has never existed, protect minority students from stigmas they will continue to endure, all while wielding the Asian American community as a weapon against other minorities — continue to corrode the merit of the decision. Together, they reveal how the verdict was more of a symbolic statement in our current divisive political landscape than a genuine attempt to rectify the many issues plaguing higher education.

Thankfully, hope is far from lost. The Supreme Court recently refused to hear a case against class-based policies at a Virginia high school, which is a positive sign for the future of diversity in education. Class-based policies are more popular with the general public, though they may struggle to replicate the same levels of racial diversity that affirmative action supported. Additionally, elite universities like Harvard have much smaller student bodies than most public universities. Some of the largest higher education systems — like the California State University and the University of California — have had race-neutral policies since 1996, and are constantly seeking new ways to improve the diversity of their student bodies.

The college education system is flawed and riddled with issues that perpetuate inequality. However, affirmative action and other minority students are not to blame for these issues — nor are they to blame for your rejection from a school. Instead, public perceptions around ‘merit’ and equality must change, and affirmative action must be replaced with a stronger, more equity-conscious system.

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