The following piece appeared in a World Journal special issue on August 8, 2015, in a shortened version in both English and Mandarin Chinese. Scroll down to find the English version.
全面入學評估（holistic admissions practice）是美國大專院校廣泛採用的一項入學評估標準，強調除了學業成績之外，同時將申請生的各項背景納入考量。今年初，超過60個亞裔社團合力向教育部暨司法部門提出控訴，指控哈佛大學的全面入學方案對於歧視亞裔學生，導致許多符合入學標準的亞裔學生被摒除在大學窄門之外。
這次64個亞太裔團體在控訴中，指控哈佛大學以限定名額的方式，壓縮了亞太裔學生入學的機會。但是90年代進行一次長達兩年的追蹤研究中，教育部門不曾發現有任何證據證明哈佛大學歧視亞裔學生。過去這25年來，也沒有證據顯示哈佛大學對亞裔學生有名額限制。另外在1978年Regents of the University of California v. Bakke 一案中，最高法院已經裁定大學入學不得以族裔設定名額。同時最高法院也裁定，依照平權法案精神，以不設定名額，但是將學生的背景列入考量的全面入學評估方案是合法也是合乎社會公益的入學評估方式。
1979年 哈佛大學新生當中有6％是亞裔，到2015年 已經大幅進步到21％。所謂全面入學評估考量的是全面所有條件，族裔只是其中的一個單項。
Over sixty Asian American organizations, earlier this year, filed a complaint with the Departments of Education and Justice, alleging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian Americans through its holistic admissions practice. While holistic review is designed to encourage admissions officers to consider all aspects of an applicant’s background beyond just test scores, and is common in many universities across America, these organizations allege discrimination because they believe qualified Asian Americans are being rejected on the basis of their race.
Decades ago, my parents left their homes in Taiwan in search of a better life here in the United States—not only for themselves, but also for their children. They understood the importance of education and equal opportunity as tools for creating a better life, virtues which they have instilled upon me. I grew up in that frenzy of SAT test-prep cram courses, after-school classes, piano lessons, and more. My parents gave me the tools and support I needed to succeed throughout my K-12 career, from my first days in a classroom to my last.
As a current college student, I recently lived through the hectic, stressful, and frustrating process that is college admissions. I know that the work of college admissions does not begin when we open our applications and type away at our essays, instead it begins years earlier—in those very test-prep classes and after-school lessons. And I know the disappointment of being rejected from my top colleges of choice. Yet I also knew that it was not the end of my college career, and I understood the holistic admissions process that, in some cases, worked in my favor, and in others, against.
In their filed complaint against Harvard, these 64 organizations suggest that racial discrimination explains an alleged gap between the number of qualified Asian American applicants and the number of Asian Americans actually enrolled at Harvard. Yet we know this gap does not exist—for the most recent applicant pool of the Class of 2019, 21.1% of all applicants, and 21% of admitted students, were Asian. The same rate of applicants to Harvard corresponds to the same rate of admittance for Asian students—there is no gap, thus no case of racial discrimination in the college admissions process.
Holistic review in college admissions exists because most American universities believe that applicants are not defined by their test scores and grades alone. A near-perfect SAT score does not merit admission. The same is true for a 4.0 GPA, or the number of extracurricular activities that you partake in. This is not to say those achievements are without merit, but elite universities receive thousands of applications from high school students of similarly stellar backgrounds—not all can attend the top school of their choice.
Holistic review provides additional information that helps universities identify out of this large pool of highly-qualified applicants those students who will most enrich the school in question. They consider so many different factors—from what part of the country you’re from, what leadership skills you’ve demonstrated, what you wrote in your essays, and more. Test scores and grades are but two factors—important, for sure, but not the complete story. Colleges are often looking for students that they think will thrive and will fit in well on their campus—an SAT score and a GPA does not paint that entire picture.
The 64 organizations claim the focus of their concern is on the full holistic review process, and the inclusion of race in that process. However the text of their complaint reveals their true intent: buried within its pages, the complaint states clearly that their desire is to end race-conscious affirmative action.
Affirmative action, particularly race-conscious affirmative action, has consistently been depicted as a “wedge” issue in our community. It is an issue that appears to—at face value—divide Asian Americans. Yet, we know through multiple surveys and polls that the majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action. The 2014 Voter Survey conducted by APIAVote, AAAJ-AAJC, and AAPIData finds that 70% of Asian Americans support affirmative action in higher education—a clear majority. Notably, the survey also found that within the larger Asian American population, a majority of Chinese Americans (63%)—who make up the bulk of the 64 organizations—also support affirmative action. These numbers have been confirmed time and time again.
Thus, the 64 organizations who filed a complaint against Harvard earlier this year seeking an end to affirmative action do not represent the opinion of most Asian Americans. And they certainly do not represent me.
Over 135 Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations have since responded in united support of the holistic admissions process and its inclusion of racial information, as well as in support of race-conscious affirmative action. As an Asian American student and activist dedicated to the advancement of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, I firmly support affirmative action.
Race-conscious affirmative action was first created to address the impact of systemic racism on all minorities—including Asian Americans—by removing barriers that stymie access to tools of upward mobility. For the last fifty years, affirmative action has directly benefitted Asian Americans, including the highly-educated East Asian community that includes many who currently oppose these programs. In the late 1900s, policies that would be described as affirmative action by today’s standards welcomed Chinese American students to many of the country’s predominantly white elite college campuses. Today, affirmative action continues to open doors for all Asian Americans (and other minorities) into spaces where we remain underrepresented, such as in academic graduate programs and in the workforce.
The signatories of this year’s complaint against Harvard base their argument on the assertion that Harvard University has implemented a quota limiting Asian American admissions to the school. Yet, racial quotas have been out of practice since 1978, when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case. Here the Court ruled against the practice of quotas, but also unequivocally ruled that non-quota-based race-conscious affirmative action is legal and often necessary. That ruling was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in several subsequent decisions, including in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case.
The complaint filed this year nonetheless alleges that an illegal quota is being employed at Harvard. However, in a two-year review completed in 1990, the Department of Education concluded that there was no evidence of anti-Asian discrimination at the school. There is no additional evidence that an anti-Asian quota has since been implemented at Harvard in the 25 years since.
In fact, Asian American admittance to Harvard University has increased steadily from 6% of incoming freshmen in 1979 to 21% of incoming freshmen in 2015. We also know that an applicant’s race is only a small factor of the school’s full consideration of every aspect of an applicant’s credentials.
We must recognize that not all Americans have the access and opportunity to succeed in high school or in the college admissions process. Some Southeast Asian communities—who are also Asian American—have significantly lower college admission and enrollment rates than other members of our community, and are profoundly underrepresented in public and private universities. Less than 15% of Hmong, Lao, and Cambodian American students hold a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to Chinese, Indian, or Korean American communities with rates higher than 50%. At many schools across the country, affirmative action helps create access to higher education for deserving Southeast Asian American students as well as other underrepresented minority students. The authors of the complaint against Harvard express no concern for these Asian Americans, or the consequences that will befall them should race-conscious affirmative action be eliminated.
Part of the reason why this point may be lost in the complaint filed against Harvard may have to do with the complaint’s authors: over forty of the sixty-four signatory organizations of the complaint against Harvard are of Chinese or Chinese American origin. Meanwhile, the coalition lacks a representative number of Southeast Asian organizations—if any. This highlights a fundamental problem that arises when the 64 signatories of the Harvard complaint describe themselves as representing “Asian American” interests: this coalition of organizations does not, itself, represent all the different kinds of people who are Asian American. While the complaint claims that the college admissions process has a “lack of understanding of Asian cultures,” I believe it is the complaint itself—as well as its authors—misunderstands the full diversity of the Asian American community.
The Harvard complaint also claims that its authors support class-conscious affirmative action policies over race-conscious programs. But they fail to understand the deep links between race and socioeconomic status in the United States. Poverty certainly hinders many Americans from accessing higher education, but even among the most socioeconomically disadvantaged, racism continues to play its part: even the poorest white students often have better access to educational opportunities and resources than middle-class or wealthy minority students.
Race is a social construction that has been woven deep into the American fabric, and manifesting itself in racism and discrimination throughout American history. Racism afflicts all communities of color, including Asian Americans; but, we cannot ignore its impact on the black community. The foundations of the United States—both physical and economic—were literally built on the backs of black slaves. Anti-black laws, policies, and programs that still torment black Americans provide undeniable evidence that no facet of society—from employment to higher education—is immune to the devastating impact of racism.
I believe that all Americans—and not just Asian Americans—have a right to a better life, and that all should have access to the tools they need to build that better future. Yet, for some, steep obstacles consistently block access to opportunity, regardless of one’s perseverance or grit.
As Asian Americans—and particularly East Asian Americans—climb the ladder of economic mobility in the United States, it is critical that we do not leave others behind. As we advance, we have to help others that are disadvantaged to climb this ladder with us. All oppression is connected—interlinked and interwoven into the fabric of our American society. As Asian Americans, we know this firsthand. And it is with our increasing success in the United States that we must continue to uplift not only ourselves, but others. It is unthinkable and selfish for us as a community to not support the advancement of all those who suffer at the hands of racism and discrimination.
I am proud of the accomplishments of the Asian American community. As a Taiwanese American, my community has the highest academic attainment of any ethnic groups in this country, irrespective of race. Yet I believe, too, that we must lift up those who are struggling, even as we climb.
Chinese Translation by Nora Hsueh. Thanks to Jenn Fang for her insightful comments and edits.