No, Black People & Affirmative Action Aren’t Why You Didn’t Get Into Your Desired College

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When I woke up on Saturday morning, I had every intention of taking a break. My brain was overloaded with news, and I just needed to step away for a couple of days. But in these moments, it’s crucial to log off social media completely. If you don’t, your “news break” will end prematurely, and you’ll be sucked right back into whatever hot topic is dominating the conversation. And, of course, that hot topic happened to be higher education and Affirmative Action.

An article titled “Asian-American student with 1590 SAT score rejected by 6 elite colleges blames affirmative action,” published by Fox News, caught my attention and left me perplexed. “How can this person go so far as to blame affirmative action for this? It makes no sense!” I thought to myself. Curiosity got the best of me, so I clicked on the article and read it in its entirety. Yet, even after reading it, I still couldn’t understand how someone could make such a claim.

The article focuses on Jon Wang, an 18-year-old from Florida and one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case “Students For Fair Admissions vs. Harvard” (Students For Fair Admissions also has a case against the University of North Carolina). Jon appears to be an exceptionally capable student, scoring 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT exams and boasting a 4.65 GPA. However, he was denied admission to all six institutions he applied to. Two of them were Ivy League institutions (Harvard & Princeton).

“The top-tier schools I applied to were MIT, CalTech, Princeton, Harvard, Carnegie-Mellon and U.C. Berkeley,” he said to Fox News host Laura Ingram.

According to Wang, he wasn’t shocked by the rejections. His guidance counselors had specifically warned him that it would be tough for him to be admitted to these “elite” schools, particularly as an Asian-American student. Frustrated by this information, Wang quickly jumped to the conclusion that he was denied admission due to Affirmative Action. He even claimed that Students For Fair Admissions informed him that black students had a higher chance of admission to these competitive institutions than Asian-American students.

Wang told Ingram. “I gave them my test scores, and then they must’ve ran the model on that… [they] told me I had a 20% chance of getting accepted to Harvard as an Asian American and a 95% chance as an African American,”

Reading that statement left me perplexed. How did he and SFFA arrive at the rationale that black people were the reason behind two problems that plague highly competitive higher education institutions: legacy admissions and the culture of inclusiveness? If anything, black applicants are even more affected by these problems.

Affirmative Action in higher education, by definition, refers to the practice of considering race and gender in the admission of students to universities. This practice was defended by the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2003 regarding the case Grutter v. Bollinger. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” Now, here we are, 20 years later. Have things improved? Is Affirmative Action still needed? Does Students For Fair Admissions have valid reasons to push for the end of Affirmative Action? And, perhaps most importantly, are black students the real problem?

Well, let’s look at the most recent statistics, courtesy of U.S. News & World Report for each institution Wang applied to.

Harvard (Ivy league)

Acceptance rate: 4%

Undergraduate enrollment: 7,153

White Students: 36%

Asian-American Students: 22%

Hispanic Students: 12%

African-American Students: 9%

California Institute of Technology

Acceptance rate: 4%

Undergraduate enrollment: 987 

Asian-American Students: 35%

White Students: 23%

Hispanic Students: 22%

African-American Students: 3%

MIT

Acceptance rate: 4%

Undergraduate enrollment: 4,638

Asian-American Students: 33%

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White Students: 24%

Hispanic Students: 15%

African-American Students: 7%

Princeton (Ivy League)

Acceptance rate: 4%

Undergraduate enrollment: 5,321

White Students: 39%

Asian-American Students: 23%

Hispanic Students: 11%

African-American Students: 8%

Carnegie-Mellon

Acceptance rate: 14%

Undergraduate enrollment: 7,365

Asian-American Students: 32%

White Students: 22%

Hispanic Students: 9%

African-American Students: 4%

U.C. Berkeley

Acceptance rate: 15%

Undergraduate enrollment: 32,143

Asian-American Students: 35%

White Students: 21%

Hispanic Students: 20%

African-American Students: 2%

To me, the data from U.S. News & World Report is staggering. Asian-American students comprise the highest racial population at four of the six institutions Jon Wang applied to. Meanwhile, black enrollment at three of the four institutions (U.C. Berkeley, Carnegie-Mellon, and CalTech) didn’t even reach 5%! Even more concerning, black students represent a smaller portion of the population at two institutions with the highest acceptance rates and student enrollments. One would expect that with more students enrolled, there would be a more diverse representation, including more black students.

Getting into these universities is highly competitive, as they all have low admission rates and rigorous standards. Yet, the issue of legacy admissions isn’t emphasized in this case. Students For Fair Admissions acknowledges that legacy admission is indeed a problem and argues that ending the practice would help achieve racial diversity if Affirmative Action is also ended. But why fight to end Affirmative Action when you can directly challenge legacy admissions?

It seems that the policies and practices of Affirmative Action have done their job, as the minority population at these institutions (especially for Asian-American students) either surpasses or nearly matches the white population. However, a survey conducted in 2018 by Inside Higher Ed found that 42% of admission officers at private schools admitted that legacy status was a factor in admission decisions. Additionally, the Harvard Crimson reported findings from their survey of incoming freshmen, stating that 15.5% of applicants were legacies. If these numbers are accurate and reflective of all Ivy League institutions, they would far surpass the percentage of African-Americans admitted.

I am all for combating systemic inequity in higher education, and it’s understandable that Jon Wang’s lack of admission to those six institutions raises questions about the process. However, jumping to the conclusion that Affirmative Action should be abolished and citing black students as the determining factor is misguided. We are five years away from Justice O’Connor’s projected timeline for the end of Affirmative Action, but it seems that, just like in college, the deadline to turn in our assignment should be extended. Give us 25 more years, and we’ll get back to you.

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