Student body at Philip Harding Harvard Commencement, May 2014
Civil Rights,  College and University

Affirmative Action: A Band-Aid on Student Inequality


Last year, Harvard University celebrated its second consecutive year of a non-white majority freshmen class, with 50.9% of admitted students coming from minority groups. On the surface, this would seem to be an indictment of the White House’s recent reversal of the Obama administration’s stance on affirmative action as proof that the system has yielded what was promised by it: diversity and equal-opportunity in American universities. However, a closer look at how Harvard managed to achieve these goals suggests that these achievements exist only on the surface, as the opportunities afforded by affirmative action are anything but equal.

A breakdown of the demographics of Harvard’s class of 2021 shows that admission percentages of black students and those of Native American/Pacific Islander descent were right in line with estimated college-age population demographics, at 14.6% and 2.5%, respectively. But these were the only two demographics that fell within that expected range. The admissions of non-Hispanic whites and Hispanic/Latino students were well below what would be expected based on the population distribution. Though 54% of the population aged 18-24 is white, only 49.1% of the admitted class fit this demographic. The Latino population faired much worse, making up only 11.6% of the incoming class even though they make up nearly twice that amount at 22% of the population. By far the biggest discrepancy came with the Asian population, who despite constituting only 6% of the college-age population, made up 22.2% of 2017’s admitted freshmen.

“It is only the Admissions Office’s staff—who rarely if ever meet these applicants—who systematically rate Asian Americans as having less attractive personal qualities,” and assign them “the lowest scores of any racial group.” – Peter Arcidiacono, Duke University

The conclusions drawn from this data are likely not what you would expect. Strangely enough, despite being represented at a rate nearly four times higher than the population distribution would predict, Asian-Americans might have been the most underrepresented demographic in Harvard’s class of 2021.

A lawsuit was recently filed against Harvard alleging that they have been discriminating against Asian-American students by admitting them at lower rates than their equally-qualified white counterparts. Harvard justified this by citing the lower scores of these applicants in its “whole-person” evaluations, which it uses to determine the overall qualifications of a student.

The implications of this argument are disturbing. As was pointed out by Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFFA), the lower scores on these evaluations seem to reflect a systematic belief that “Asian-American applicants—as a group—have less attractive ‘personal qualities’ than white applicants.” This is not the kind of argument that Harvard needs to be making.

Unsatisfied with the hole into which they’d already dug themselves, Harvard claimed in its response to the suit that the discrepancies in personal ratings should be attributed to “aggregate differences in unobservable factors.” But according to Duke University’s Professor Peter Arcidiacono, “Alumni interviewers (who actually meet the applicants) rate Asian Americans, on average, at the top with respect to personal ratings—comparable to white applicants and higher than African-American and Hispanic applicants.” The same holds true for those teachers and counselors that have met with the students.

“It is only the Admissions Office’s staff—who rarely if ever meet these applicants—who systematically rate Asian Americans as having less attractive personal qualities,” and assign them “the lowest scores of any racial group.”

Source: Complaint of the Asian American Coalition for Education v. Yale University, Brown University, and Dartmouth College (2016, May 23). Based on data from the Department of Education.

Unfortunately, this discrimination does not seem to be confined within the walls of Harvard. The Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) submitted a complaint in 2016 alleging that Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth have also been discriminating against Asian-American applicants. The AACE highlights that although the percentage of college-age Asian-Americans has more than doubled from 1995 to 2011, these Ivy League colleges have shown no discernible growth in their Asian student bodies, appearing to have “capped” their admissions at about 16%. In fact, Brown University has seen a decrease in the percentage of enrolled Asian-Americans, dropping from 15.4% in 1995-1997 to 12.4% in 2012-2014.1

While this kind of racial quota has been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, it is a concept all too familiar to the Ivy League. A quote from the AACE’s case report reminds us of maybe the first example of an attempt to prevent “overrepresentation” in U.S. schools:

The situation is eerily reminiscent of the quota system the Ivy League schools maintained for Jews during the 1920s. Orchestrated by Harvard College, it had as its goal creating and maintaining what was seen as the proper level of Jewish enrollment. In 1925, Jewish enrollment at Harvard College was over 27 percent. One year later, after imposition of the quota system, the Class of 1926 was 15 percent Jewish; and the percentage of Jewish enrollment remained virtually unchanged at about that level until the 1940s. – AACE

Racial quotas such as these are illegal. However, the consideration of one’s race in an admissions application is not. If this seems paradoxical, it should. The lawsuits by the SFFA and ACCE both demonstrate that while there may not be “official” quotas in place, the end result is the same as in the case of Harvard’s cap of Jewish applicants. The summary of the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision to allow race-based admissions decisions states that it is “not an interest in enrolling a certain number of minority students, but an interest in obtaining ‘the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity.’”

To figure out what must be done in order to do this requires only the most basic logical reasoning: In order to obtain the “educational benefits that flow from student body diversity,” there must be “a certain number of minority students,” (but not too many of any particular race). In other words, it must maintain a race-based quota.

In order to obtain the “educational benefits that flow from student body diversity,” there must be “a certain number of minority students,” (but not too many of any particular race). In other words, it must maintain a race-based quota.

The best example of how this affects individual applicants of each race can be found in a study by Princeton University’s Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford in their book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal. In it, they used data collected from eight elite universities in 1997 – which is the last year that the schools released the information – on the SAT scores of their admitted students. They found that a white student would have to score a 1460 in order to have the same chance of admission as a black student who scored an 1150. This is a difference equal to more than 20% of the total possible points on the exam. For an Asian student to have the same chance of admission, he or she would have to score a perfect 1600.

Many will argue that this difference in expectations for students of various races is justified by the differing rates of poverty, opportunity, etc. between various races. However, this would explain neither the lower rate of acceptance for Asians compared to Caucasians nor the continued lack of Hispanic/Latino representation. It also fails to explain why a race-based system would be better served to address these problems than a system designed to help impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged peoples of all colors.

Prevailing evidence suggests that it does not. In 2005’s Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, a statistical analysis of several prestigious universities by authors Bowen, Kurzweil, and Tobin showed that while minorities from low-income or low-education households are given an edge in the admissions process of top universities, Caucasians in the same situations receive no such advantages.

This is especially concerning when considering the number of white Americans in poverty. According to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017, while non-Hispanic white Americans have much lower rates of poverty than black Americans, (at 8.8% and 22%, respectively), the overall number of whites in poverty is nearly twice that of the number of impoverished blacks, with 17.3 million living in poverty compared to 9.2 million.

Additionally, though the poverty rates between the two differ by 13.2% – no doubt a significant figure – the rates of students who receive federal aid are still hugely disproportionate to that number, with 25.2% more black students receiving grants.2  The numbers are increasingly disparate when higher amounts of aid are compared, with the highest category – grants of $4,300 or more – being granted to black students at a rate more than three times that of white students. The difference between these numbers demonstrates that it’s not just that white students have more money than their fellow students; it’s that they have to have more money than their fellow students.

However good the intentions of those who have defended the policy; affirmative action is a failed system. It uses racial discrimination to artificially doctor the numbers of various races in student bodies. It devalues a student’s academic merits and achievements in favor of arbitrary judgments of his or her value as a “whole-person,” which has led to labeling certain races as having less desirable personalities than others. It prioritizes racial diversity while subverting class diversity, ignoring many low-income and low-education families. All the while, it only serves to conceal the underlying issues.

Affirmative action is a Band-Aid; it addresses the symptom while failing to address the ailments which are the cause. The amount of gerrymandering required to obtain the desired levels of diversity in schools highlight these issues: discrepancies in test scores between various races, educational deficiencies of those from low-income households – an affliction that affects minorities at a higher rate – and the difficulties faced by these same households in funding a child’s academic goals.

But instead of telling underrepresented minorities that less is expected of them by admitting lower test scores, we should be asking why their scores are lower in the first place – and how we can improve them. Instead of punishing Asian-Americans for their work ethic and scholarly achievements, we should be looking for ways to elevate the rest of the student population to that same level. Instead of telling our students that the fate of their college careers is tied to the size of their wallets and the color of their skin, we should be working to create a system where hard work and dedication – the foundations of the American Dream – are enough.

It’s time to rip off the Band-Aid of affirmative action, and to realize that there are no shortcuts to equality.


Tyler Watkins graduated magna cum laude and with Honors with a BA in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has since worked in the fields of medical and psychological research at Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of Iowa. Now pursuing a career as a writer, he's published in Quillette, Intellectual Conservative, and Areo Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @WatkinsDoOp


  • noname

    In the intervening period, scholars have been looking more closely at how affirmative action works in practice. Based on how they interpret the data that have been collected, some of these scholars have come to believe that affirmative action doesn’t always help the students it’s supposed to. Why? Because some minority students who get into a top school with the help of affirmative action might actually be better served by attending a less elite institution to which they could gain admission with less of a boost or no boost at all.

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