Affirmative Action and Asian American College Applicants

by Jay Joseph ‘22

A number of polls and surveys taken regarding affirmative action demonstrate that the American public is largely divided on the topic of such programs in college admissions. Both sides of the issue have strong feelings for their viewpoints. However, the legal arguments regarding affirmative action are incredibly complex and leave a lot of room for confusion. Therefore, a better approach to this controversy is presenting a case over affirmative action in college admissions that is expected to reach the Supreme Court. By reviewing the facts and arguments of this case, high school students can come to their own educated conclusions.

College Admissions take into account both academic performance and personal life stories when accepting applicants. Most colleges want to ensure they appear as a high-performing school with a diverse student body. However, students are now questioning which factors should be accounted for in judging merit to attend an institution and whether certain traits are judged in a discriminatory manner. For instance, many Asian Americans today are conflicted over how affirmative action and diversity-based programs affect their chances of admission to a college. SFFA v. Harvard, a case preparing to appeal to the Supreme Court, has brought this controversy into the limelight.

On November 17, 2014, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a coalition of Asian American students, filed a claim against Harvard arguing that the institution discriminated against Asian American applicants in its admissions by imposing a quota of the Asian American population attending the institution. The SFFA also accuses other colleges of upholding this race quota that was declared unconstitutional in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). To prevent this issue from occurring, SFFA proposes that all colleges should eliminate race as a factor in college admissions. Harvard argues that their “holistic” process does not discriminate against Asian Americans. They claim race is only used to paint a bigger picture of the student’s life to properly assess their merit for acceptance; it does not have a negative effect on an application. 

The U.S. District Court of Massachusetts ruled that while the Harvard admission process may not be perfect, it is a fine example of what college admissions should look like and it does not discriminate against Asian Americans. The Supreme Court is expected to hear this case where it will decide the fate of affirmative action in college admissions.

According to an analysis the SFFA provided of 160,000 student records, Harvard consistently gave Asian Americans lower personality scores based on traits like courage, likeability, etc. SFFA’s claim is that even though Asian American applicants score higher on other criteria, such as academic performance, than applicants of other races, low personality scores significantly reduced their chances of admission. Court documents also revealed that in an internal investigation on admissions in 2013, Harvard found bias against Asian American applicants, but never publicized the information. 

Harvard responded that high school teachers and counselors provide a basis for the personality score, often giving poorer recommendations for Asian Americans. Harvard also said that the findings of the SFFA were made with misleading analytics as their expert took out the data of applicants who were favored because they were legacies, children of staff, or athletes (including those who were Asian American).

Multiple interest groups (including those representing Asian Americans) and Harvard argued that SFFA promoted the viewpoint that Asian Americans are a homogenous ethnicity with high test scores and strong financial backgrounds, when in fact Asian Americans have the largest disparity in SAT scores. They argue that the admission process should be able to take race into account because it serves to benefit these underprivileged groups of Asian Americans and the overall education of all races. Harvard claims that race is taken into account to properly judge the level of hardship an applicant has faced on their path to college. 

It is also argued that Asian Americans are being “racially mascotted” by white affirmative action opponents as a minority group against affirmative action. For instance, the representative for this case is long-time opponent of affirmative action Edward Blum who argued against affirmative action previously in Fisher v. University of Texas (2016). In the past, Asian Americans have denounced the notion that affirmative action harms them as affirmative action helps other racial minorities, but SFFA v. Harvard represents an exception in this pattern. 

If this case reaches the Supreme Court, the fate of affirmative action and diversity-based programs that account for race could hang in the balance. The Supreme Court can decide that Harvard’s use of race in college admissions is unconstitutional by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the Supreme Court could also uphold the precedent from Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and Fisher v. University of Texas (2016) and decide that college admissions that individually evaluate applicants for factors including race are constitutional and not in violation of the equal protection clause. 

Both the American public opinion and Asian American opinion on race-conscious college admissions are complicated. When affirmative action is not clearly defined or transparent, room  is left for doubt and confusion. SFFA v. Harvard is an example of such an occurrence where a lack of transparency led a group of people to wonder if they are in fact being judged in a discriminatory manner due to their race. However, the Supreme Court cannot determine whether or not Harvard discriminated against Asian Americans; they can only judge whether the use of race in admissions is constitutional. The case that tried to not directly entangle itself with affirmative action is on the path to decide its fate.