I was listening to OnPoint on NPR yesterday and the guest was Carolyn Chen, director in Asian American Studies at Northwestern University who proposed that Asian-American applicants are discriminated against at Ivy League schools. She stated some statistics to make her point, including that Jews make up only 2% of the general population but 25% of Ivy League university student bodies while Asian-Americans constitute 5% of the U.S. population and about 18% of those same elite private schools. Two things caught my interest – the fact that there were enough Jewish students to even make up that large percentage and two how is 18% that much different that 25% - they’re both a lot larger pools than their general population percentages. The rest of the hour-long discussion was spent talking about admission policies at U.S. private universities, with other guests who were either admission officers or related to the topic in other ways with a variety of information about the process and callers with compelling questions. The one question that I was most interested in was a mother of a mixed-raced daughter who was half white and half Asian and she wanted to know which race box her daughter should check that would give her the best chance of getting admitted to her choice school. Two things struck me from her question. One solidified my hatred of racial hyphens. I just don’t like labels such as African-American or Asian-American, one because it makes no sense in a racial or cultural way because not all Africans are black, et al. It’s a geographic distinction, not a race or cultural one. A white kid born in South Africa should be considered African-American but I doubt that they would call themselves that here in the U.S. The other issue is that our country became great based on us being basically mutts and not homogenous. Of course, we have had problems getting along throughout our existence as a nation – some issues bigger than others, but it’s that notion that we are inheritably diverse that makes us different than most other countries in the world.
So why don’t we take that basic concept – that we are all mutts – and put everyone in one box. I would love to see a major private university such as Harvard come out and say we will not consider race or any personal data in our first round of choosing applicants. It would be sort of like the TV show The Voice where the first round contestants are judged solely on the quality of their voice in a blind selection. I say delete all personal questions from college applications seen by admission officers. Why should that woman caller’s daughter have to even worry about what box to check (that leads to a whole other topic dealing with why people of mixed race parents are always considered to be the race of the minority parent). I believe all college applicants should be accepted by merit only – no race, geography, legacy, financial status, if parents are big donors or other such nonsense. Accept kids based on the fundamental question: Will this candidate be successful at the school, graduate and contribute to society in a meaningful way? From that pool then other criteria can be used but, again, it would have to be based on merit. I say let the cards fall where they may and if you get a lot of kids with Asian backgrounds well then they deserve it because they studied harder or bring more to the table.
I say let all personal data be voluntary. Let candidates decide what they want to use to help them give a leg up. If they want to disclose they come from immigrant parents, then let it be on their terms. A lot of information about a candidate can be had through application essays. Just word questions in a way, such as: How has your background formulated your future aspirations? It is up to the applicant to disclose personal information, such as race, body type, cultural background, etc.
Until a major private university changes its policies then the system will remain the same. I understand that there are other reasons to why universities select the students that they do. Major universities are businesses, even though they’re essentially non-profits. They are not only in the business of educating. They have large research institutions that need funding and rightly so and in such they must build their brand. All brands to be successful must court not only new users but keep existing one’s happy. For a university that means keeping alumni happy, which constitutes giving their kids preferential treatment. It means propagating enthusiasm for the school through sports because successful teams bring in big TV dollars. That’s why legacies are so important because they keep a university in the hearts and minds of families. My brother-in-law and his wife both went to the University of Mississippi. They continue to follow their football team and even return to the school several times a season to attend games. Their house is full of Ole Miss memorabilia and they would really encourage their children to attend their alma mater, even if another school would be better. I guess it’s an inclusion thing – people like to be feel part of a group of like-minded people and I understand that but at the application level – I think even that white middle class kid, who may be top of his class from an average high school in a middle American city, should be able to apply to Harvard or Princeton or Brown without feeling like he or she could never get in because they’re not black, Asian, Hispanic or a farm kid from the middle of Kansas.
I really think if you could sweep a giant hand across any high school in America and grab whatever group of kids was walking across campus and send them to a top private college that you’d get the same success rate than from the current application process. Let’s not worry about what color their skin is or if they’re poor or rich or from Montana or fat or skinny or red haired or in a wheel chair. If they’re passionate about learning, helping the world, have proven study skills, top GPA and willing to take on challenges then accept them and help them become great human beings. They need all the help they can get.