Dr. Michele Hernandez

Assault on Affirmative Action Unwarranted

A post by Dr. Michele Hernandez

In a presidency filled with ironies, nothing is more ironic than the Trump team going after affirmative action. In effect, their argument is that somehow minorities are taking up the seats that white students should occupy. Anyone who has read my first book, A is for Admission, knows that I argued back in 1997 that I was against affirmative action as practiced by the Ivies NOT for the reasons espoused by Trump, but because colleges conflated 3 different ideas: minority recruiting, diversity and socio economic disadvantage. I argued that a fairer system would eliminate the outdated race-based part of XX and focus instead on socio-economic disadvantage, which cuts across race to include poor Asians, Indians, African Americans and white students alike. To be clear, minority students are NOT taking the places of qualified white students at top colleges. As Daniel Golden argues in his excellent book The Price of Admission (2006), “affirmative action is a convenient scapegoat for those who seek to pit minority groups against each other. A more logical target would be the ‘preferences of privilege’”.

Let’s take a look at the pie chart for selective colleges. In a typical top college freshman class, African American students take up 5-10% of the class, Hispanic students about the same, Native America under 1%. Together minority students take up roughly 15% of the class. Recruited athletes (largely white) take up 17-20%, legacies (largely white) take up 15-20%, Development and VIP cases 5-10% (largely white). In short, white students take up the vast majority of spots (40-45%) compared to the paltry 15% taken up by minority students.

As Golden summarizes, “giving more slots to already advantaged students, these preferences displace more deserving candidates from other backgrounds, including Asian-Americans and middle-class whites, without achieving the goals of affirmative action, such as diversity and redressing historical discrimination.” I couldn’t agree more. Just take Jared Kushner, a beneficiary of white affirmative action as a development case at Harvard – after 2 senators petitioned on his behalf and a pledge of 2.5 million dollars, he miraculously was accepted to Harvard over many of his more qualified classmates despite his lower SAT scores and mediocre grades/performance. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – the White House has opened up a can of worms they should have left hidden in the tackle box.

As a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and a private consultant for 20 years, I can state unequivocally that Asian students (and Indian students for that matter) do face much tougher admissions odds at all top colleges. They face criticisms that they all look alike, are not leaders, play violin/piano and are quiet/diligent. Much like the Jews prior to the 1960’s (read the definitive book on this topic, The Chosen by Jerome Karabel), Asians are now overrepresented in the applicant pool but underrepresented at top colleges. The SAT gap has been shown to be about 120 points meaning that Asian students typically have to score that much higher just to be equal to a white applicant.

The solution? For my part, rather than attacking any ONE preference as unfair, I’d just acknowledge ALL preferences as unfair and get rid of them. What about diversity? Institute a socio-economic disadvantage flag that would pick up many talented (but disadvantaged) minority students. Follow the lead of Cal Tech who pretty much abolished all preferences. And guess what – they have a much higher Asian population than any Ivy. They are arguably the only truly “fair” admissions office in the country.

One reply on “Assault on Affirmative Action Unwarranted”

Caltech is a bit of a red herring; it is an all STEM school, compared to the Ivies which are more 50/50 STEM vs. humanities. You can see that effect a bit when you look at MIT, which is mostly STEM, but does consider more in their application process than Caltech. MIT has more asian americans than Ivies, but less than Caltech.

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