The Department of Justice is currently investigating admissions policies at Harvard to see whether they discriminate against Asian-Americans.
The Asian-American Coalition for Education is arguing that affirmative action hurts Asian students' chance at getting into Ivy League schools. We spoke with the head of that coalition, a student who feels being Asian hurt his college application, and an NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer to try and settle the debate. Following is a transcript of the video.
Business Insider: There’s a fight heating up in the education world over the use of race in college admissions.
You can not remedy past discrimination with new discrimination and that's what colleges are doing.
The discrimination was so extensive, that we had to make colleges just for black people so we could go to college.
Well, Asians are the largest growing segment in the American populace and yet their numbers at your Harvard's, at your elite universities don't change.
BI: Some Asian-American groups say race-based affirmative-action policies hurt their chances of attending top colleges.
The groups filed a complaint with the federal government in 2015 alleging Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Last November, the US Department of Justice agreed to investigate that claim.
So, does affirmative action hurt Asian-Americans? First, we have to define the term.
Rachel Kleinman: So, affirmative action has a really long history.
Rachel Kleinman is a senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Kleinman: I think the term was probably first coined by President Kennedy and that was with respect to employment programs, federal employment programs, but then really expanded upon and put into place by President Johnson. And the idea was really to put some teeth into some civil rights laws and say “Okay the idea here isn’t just to say there is equal opportunity but to find ways to actually level the playing field.”
BI: Since the policies were enacted, minorities and women have seen increases in university enrollment.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the use of race in college admissions is constitutional, so long as explicit “quotas” aren’t used. But some Asian-American groups say quotas do exist.
Michael Wang: I think I had a 4.6 GPA, something around a 4.7. I had a perfect ACT score.
BI: Michael Wang applied to college in 2013. He was an outstanding student and even sang at President Obama’s inauguration. But, he was rejected by every Ivy League school except UPenn.
He filed a complaint with the Department of Education alleging Yale, Stanford and Princeton discriminated against him because he was Asian-American.
Wang: I definitely felt like, really disappointed. A little bit angry at that point as well. You’re not sure why you got in or why you didn’t get in. And I think that’s what made it really hopeless for me because if I had to go through this again, what could I do to maybe improve my chances? I don’t have the answer to that, I guess that’s what the hopeless part is.
BI: A 2009 Princeton study found that in order to get into America’s top universities, Asian-American students' SAT scores have to be 140 points higher than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanic students, and 450 points higher than black students.
Yukong Zhao: That is out of 1600 points. So that is really unduly harm. Creates so much burden on Asian-American children.
BI: Yukong Zhao is the president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, a non-profit organization fighting for Asian-American educational rights. They argue that Ivy League institutions use racial quotas to the detriment of more qualified Asian-American applicants.
Zhao: That is illegal.Most Asian-American children want to have a big dream. In order to achieve that, they have to study with double efforts.
BI: Since the 90s, the population of Asian-Americans in the US has more than doubled, but their representation in top universities has remained about the same
Wang: If race is used as a positive factor meaning that it helps an application, that’s good. When it harms an application, I feel like that’s not fair.
BI: Can being of Asian descent actually disadvantage your college application?
Rachel Kleinman: Affirmative action is not what’s causing Asian-American students not to get into college. Racial quotas are not allowed and universities, as far as I know, are not using racial quotas. What they are using are holistic admissions. Policies which do allow for some consideration of race as one among many factors.
Why is it that it's affirmative action that they say is causing this when in fact, in most of these institutions, they are majority white. You don’t go to these institutions and feel overwhelmed by the number of black and brown students you see there and say “oh, they’re taking Asian-American spots.” It’s actually still a majority white school. So, this argument that affirmative action somehow is causing it doesn’t really seem to have much of a logical basis.
BI: According to a survey by the Harvard Crimson, Asian-Americans make up 23.5% of Harvard’s freshman class. Black students only make up 11.2%. White students? A whopping 58.2%.
Compare that to the percentage of college-age Americans of each race ... Asians and whites are overrepresented, but black students are underrepresented.
Despite the recent lawsuits, 67% of Asian-Americans feel that affirmative action policies are needed.
Kleinman: Yeah, I think there can be no question that we still need affirmative action. Both to provide opportunities and pathways to opportunities for people of all races but also to create diverse campuses. Without affirmative action, we wouldn't be creating this diverse group of graduates that we need in order to lead this country, to create business, to compete in the global economy.
BI: Harvard has agreed to hand over years of confidential applicant records to the DOJ, who will then decide whether they’ve been discriminating against Asian-American students. From there, we could be looking at the next landmark affirmative action trial.