Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. This is a typical prompt offered as a supplementary essay for the Common Application. The Common Application is an undergraduate admission application that can be used to apply to any number of 700 member colleges all with the simple push of a button. This question and many other similar ones offer applicants a chance to share meaningful stories of their lives that can’t be quantified. No number out of 1600 can provide even a glimpse of insight into the unique set of circumstances that’s shaped any specific applicant. These supplementary essays are set up so that an admissions officer can read the application and connect with the applicant on a personal level, but now picture this scenario: An admissions officer picks up an application to review it and finds that every single part of the application that suggests the applicant’s race has been redacted. This may quickly become a grim reality if the four Asian American students that are suing Harvard win the case.
These four students believed that they were more qualified to receive a spot in the class of 2018 than their minority counterparts, and because of affirmative action they were held at a higher standard for admission than other students. Affirmative action is a policy that favors individuals that are part of communities that are victims of discrimination. In other words a Black or Hispanic student may get priority to a college over an Asian or White student because they’re of a minority race. This lawsuit could put the affirmative action laws that are enforced in universities all over the country in jeopardy. In this era of supposed colorblindness, affirmative action is necessary to level the playing field in college admission. The enforcement of affirmative action versus the elimination of affirmative action directly relate to the two terms equity vs equality, respectively. To fully understand the connection between the two similar sounding words and affirmative action, it’s imperative that the two words are differentiated. Equality is treating everyone the same.
Equity is giving everyone the tools they need to be successful. Equality works to promote fairness, but it only works if everyone starts from the same place and requires the same help. Equity appears unfair on the surface because you are giving some people more help than others, but it actively moves everyone closer to success by so called, “leveling the playing field”. Giving students who come to school already behind in academics the same resources as somebody at the top of their class doesn’t successfully close the achievement gap. That is why students that have endured hardship, usually low-income students and students of minority groups, should be given the adequate amount of resources so they can succeed just as well as privileged top tier students. This is the importance of equity. The ideas of affirmative action that are now headlining controversy all across the U.S in the 21st century can be dated back to a time as early as the Reconstruction Era. This era covers the approximate decade between 1865-1877, after the Civil War, where the Confederate South was working to join back into the United States. Newly released from the shackles of slavery, many black Americans had no experience in leading an independent life in the “land of the free”.
As a result, General William Sherman proposed the “forty acres and a mule” policy which granted land in Georgia to black families. This proposal was soon quashed by President Andrew Johnson, but it was a significant event in history that got the ball rolling for civil rights and more specifically affirmative action .President John F. Kennedy though, was the first person to apply the idea of affirmative action in the modern way we think of it now. In 1961, he signed the Executive Order 10925 that stated that government contractors must “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Affirmative action is necessary in creating racially diverse college communities all across the United States. The typical university in the United States is very White and highly selective universities are even more so.
In 2014, Whites made up on average, a 58% majority of students attending 4 year colleges. In the same pool, African American students made up only 13% and Latinx students made up approximately 12%. Affirmative action policies attempt to even these numbers out so minority races get adequate representation in these institutions. Unfortunately these policies have recently come under fire, and court cases dealing with the problems of affirmative action, and more specifically reverse discrimination have been popping up everywhere. Reverse discrimination is the practice of favoring individuals belonging to groups that have been discriminated against previously. In this most recent case SFFA vs Harvard, the highly selective ivy league university is accused of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in voter registration requirements, schools, employment, and public accommodations. The 4 Asian-American students that represent The Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) in court claim that Harvard has been giving higher test scoring Asian-American students’ spots in their classes to students of racial minorities for decades. Similarly, in 2013 Abigail Fisher, a White female that was rejected from the University of Texas sued the school for violating the Equal Protection Clause. In simple terms, the Equal Protection Clause, a part of the fourteenth amendment, says that no state can make or enforce any law that abridges the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States and no state can deprive a person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. In addition, a person within the jurisdiction of a state that they reside in cannot be denied the equal protection of the laws.
The University of Texas has a plan called the Top Ten Percent Rule that guarantees admission to the top 10% of every in-state graduating high school class. Fisher did not qualify with this plan and believed that her race was used against her during her admissions process. Both of these court cases sit in a blurry, grey area. What are the real reasons that these students weren’t accepted into these universities? Was it really their race that was a major contributing factor or did they just not have an impressive enough application? The plaintiffs of these cases as well as many other people against affirmative action think that race should not be considered in a student’s application. Instead they offer proposals to rid schools of these controversies by paying attention only to student’s socioeconomic background. The argument follows that giving economically disadvantaged students a boost will eventually lead to racial diversity. This doesn’t solve the problem of lack of racial diversity on campus for a simple reason: most poor people in the U.S. are White. Putting a thumb on the scale for poorer students will come out benefitting White students much more than students of minority communities. It’s clear that creating a college environment with economic diversity is a goal. The most highly-selective universities accept more students from the top 1% on the income distribution scale than from the entire bottom half. However it is important to note that while Black or Hispanic students are more likely to be poor, the majority of poor students that apply to these highly selective schools are White.
In the 90s, Professor Thomas Kane from Harvard addressed the issue of economic diversity versus racial diversity in a paper that showed that just one out of six economically disadvantaged students attending elite schools were Black or Hispanic. For every five White students there was only one of a minority race. Prof. Kane’s theory still holds true to this day. Highly-selective colleges can’t achieve racial diversity without considering race during the admissions process, and no other variable including income can help achieve it either.
With affirmative action laws in jeopardy it’s important to understand the severity of the consequences that ignoring race in college admission has. Many researchers have set out to determine the kind of impact a ban on affirmative action would have, if implemented. Their investigation results, published in a report titled “Diversity and Affirmative Action in Higher Education” in October of 2007, revealed the staggering results that such a ban could decrease the number of minorities at the nation’s more highly-selective institutions by as much as 35 percent. In addition to taking steps backwards from creating a racially diverse college environment, ignoring race has detrimental effects toward the students. Primarily it strips the student of their identity. How would you feel if you were told you could not talk about your gender, your religion or your sexual orientation, that you couldn’t discuss your disability or speak your own language? These can all be very key aspects that help to shape a student and by judging a student without regards to the parts of their life that are important to them, it is essentially stripping them of that identity. Not only does silencing discussions about race effectively silence the people whose lives have been largely shaped by race, it also prevents the unity of people across communities and may even pull these communities apart.