The Case Against Harvard

A Chinese-American's take on the infamous Harvard debate


google images/ Harvard University

Courtesy of Harvard University

By Amanda Lu, North Allegheny Senior High School

College hysteria is a real problem for seniors across America. What used to be considered free time is now filled up with Common Application tweaks, transcript requests, and freak-outs over the test scores we can’t improve or the bad grades we can’t change. 

Fortunately (and for some, unfortunately), test scores and grades are only a small factor in the college admissions process. Many colleges swear by holistic review, in which admissions officers take into account every facet of an applicant–from uncontrollable factors like race and gender to controllable ones like essays, extracurriculars, and grades. I’ve always likened college admissions to a game of craps: every player certainly is competent enough to win, but it’s just a matter of how lucky you get. You can be smart, you can get all A’s, you can get perfects on your standardized tests, you can be Albert freaking Einstein, but that still won’t guarantee you a place at your dream university. Nothing can. You’ve just gotta roll your dice and pray that you defeat your odds.

Many people come to this realization at some point in their lives. Maybe it’s in ninth grade Honors Biology, when they realize learning doesn’t come as easily to them anymore. Maybe it’s in the summer of eleventh grade, when they attend a summer program that introduces them to dozens of other uber-smart, passionate kids who have the same dream school as them. Maybe it’s before they submit their application. Maybe it’s when they get their rejection letter. Everyone experiences that “a-ha” moment–that moment in which they realize they’re not as special as Mommy and Daddy promised and that they’re not entitled to everything in the world–and it doesn’t matter if you’re eleven or fifteen or eighteen: it’s equally heavy-hitting, equally heart-wrenching, and you never fully recover. Trust me, I’ve been there. So has the coalition of students who have banded together to sue Harvard for their perceived discrimination against Asians.

You can be smart, you can get all A’s, you can get perfects on your standardized tests, you can be Albert freaking Einstein, but that still won’t guarantee you a place at your dream university. Nothing can.”

Let’s circle back to 2015. Austin Jia, a senior, applied to the UPenn, Princeton, Columbia, and most infamously, Harvard, with bright eyes and high hopes. With his 2340 SAT, 4.42 GPA, and extracurriculars like debate, orchestra, and the captain position of the tennis team, he was confident about getting into at least one of his reach schools.

In the spring of 2016, he was rejected from all 4. Most seniors would cry for a few days and move on with their lives, but not Austin. Instead of lamenting, he rose straight to action. He knew he was not a lone case: many of his Asian peers earned equally high statistics, only to get their spots “robbed” by people who were, statistically speaking, worse than them. Austin Jia, representative of most Asians who are rejected from elite colleges, is now the poster boy of the case against Harvard.

However, the case against Harvard goes back further than 2015. Edward Blum, a man infamous among legal circles, is at the forefront of this Harvard ordeal. Edward Blum probably sounds familiar to you: you might recognize his name from the “Becky with the Bad Grades” memes. Blum is a long-time adversary of affirmative action–in the 90s, he proclaimed the Texan redistricting process as “discriminative” against whites and in favor of blacks and Hispanics via Bush v. Vera; in 2008, he infamously orchestrated Fisher v. University of Texas, an ineffective crusade against white discrimination in college admissions. After failing miserably, he formed Students for Fair Admissions with the goal of completely eliminating race-based decisions in college admissions.

All of Blum’s cases have been racially-motivated in one way or another, with the obvious intent of benefiting people who fit his demographic (white, and preferably male). Therefore, his efforts in this lawsuit are at best skeptical, and it really makes you wonder if he is just using Asian Americans as a pawn for his own white-based agenda.

Either way, it’s too late to call out Blum’s questionable motives now: this case has made its way all the way to court. The court started hearings on Monday, October 15th, and it will take three weeks to hear all the evidence. Here’s the case against Harvard

Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College is the fancy official name of the lawsuit, but from here, we will refer to it simply as “the Harvard lawsuit” or “SFFA v. Harvard.” The lawsuit, originally filed in November of 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions, asserts that Harvard employs “racial and ethnically discriminatory policies and procedures in administering the undergraduate admissions program” that specifically harm Asian American applicants. The plaintiffs say that Harvard consistently rates Asian-American applicants lower than those of other races on subjective traits, according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records. The implication is that Asians are being scored lower on subjective traits in order to balance out their high objective scores, such as test scores and grades, thus limiting their chances of admission. According to the SFFA, Harvard has a quota on the number of Asians they can accept each year and lowering Asians’ “personality scores” ensures they will not surpass this quota.

There are two reasons why the Harvard lawsuit is so pervasive in the media. First, there are clear points for both sides of the argument. In the past, most racially-charged college admissions lawsuits have been one-sided. The cases of the past were brought on by white plaintiffs who were inadequate applicants regardless of their race and wanted to point fingers at affirmative action rather than accept their inferiority. However, this case is different. High-achieving Asians are now the victims, not Becky with the Bad Grades, and these Asians have high SATs and impeccable GPAs to back them up. Second, although the lawsuit does not directly attack affirmative action, it asserts that Asians are robbed of their rightful spots due to racial quotas, implying that students who objectively score lower than Asians earned their spots at Harvard because of their non-Asian race. Not only does this completely dismiss the non-academic efforts of people of color, it feeds further into the fallacy that affirmative action only serves to help Hispanic and black people at the expense of Asian and white people.

Harvard is currently portrayed as an Asian-hating, ineffectively progressive institution, and it’s completely understandable why Asian Americans are misinterpreting the implications of the Harvard lawsuit. We hear that we have to score 140 points higher than other applicants and other misleading headlines, and we scream, “Racism!” “We are the new Jews!”

I definitely don’t think the statistics are wrong–I wholeheartedly believe that Asian applicants do score higher than the other races on average–but I don’t think those statistics are an indication that we are held to higher expectations than other races by the universities we apply to. Asians scoring higher on standardized tests says nothing about discrimination in college admissions, but it does speak volumes about our own culture: a culture obsessed with objectively measurable traits like standardized tests and GPAs.

I’m not blaming the Asians. Really. I’m Chinese American; I’m on their side. My whole life, I’ve followed instructions with expectations of reward. I’m sure all my Asian peers have done this, too. This belief is perpetuated by our parents. In Asia, placement in universities is usually determined purely by test scores. There is a lack of emphasis on personality and too much emphasis on perceived capability and competence based on objective characteristics such as test scores and grades. Thus, many first-generation Asian students are taught to follow very specific formulas, just like their parents: from math equations to college admissions. Our parents think that high test scores and consistent A’s equal success. We know it’s not true, but we listen anyway. They’re our parents, after all.

Then, we act so surprised when we hear that Austin Jia with his 2340 SAT got rejected from Harvard. Instead of realizing that there are so many other controllable components that make up a college application, such as a vibrant attitude that your teachers can vouch for or extracurriculars that confirm your passion in a particular field, we somehow convince ourselves that it is the “low” test score — not the other 1212983 other factors that are involved in the process — that got him rejected from elite universities.

Standardized test scores give insight into someone’s test-taking strategy, intelligence, and work ethic, but there is so much more to a human than that. It’s great to be able to work for four hours with machine-like efficiency, but it’s not so great if that’s the only thing someone can do.

If you earn high standardized test scores, that’s amazing: you are very intelligent, you work very hard, and you deserve all the praise you receive for them. If you earn low standardized test scores, that’s okay, too: you too are very intelligent (even though it might not shine through in your test scores), you too work very hard (just in different areas), and you too deserve all the praise you receive for the other great things you do in life.

Either way, whether you’re in the 99th percentile or the 10th percentile, it doesn’t matter too much: test scores make up less than 20% of the college application. Colleges know that best, including Harvard University.

So, here’s the case in favor of Harvard.

Harvard University responded to the lawsuit with packets of information compiled by an economics professor at UC Berkeley. The information is all there: there is no racial discrimination. There is no guideline stating that Asians need to score X amount of points higher than other races. There is nothing that even suggests a racial quota. In fact, the data actually suggests that race is one of the least important factors in college admissions.

What this report does bring to light is the disproportionately high number of donor children, legacies, and athletes annually accepted at Harvard. Therefore, I believe the rage is misguided. If people should be angry about anything, it should be about that. Historically, college admissions has been more of a class issue rather than race.

Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter. It might seem like the world is closing in on you when you get rejected from a university, but that’s one of many, many obstacles you will have to tackle at some point in your life.

Not to be unbearably cliched, but everything truly does work out in the end. Just ask Austin Jia. Austin now happily attends Duke University, his second-choice school, and plans to major in economics. He actively participates in a student group that addresses millennial concerns, such as climate change and student loans, putting his argumentative skills and provocative nature to good use. Obviously, not attending an Ivy League university did not deter him from receiving a good education and entering a bright, successful future, and it won’t deter you, either.

So, believe what you will. Just keep in mind that, in the end, no matter if you go to Harvard or if you don’t go to college at all, you have an equal shot of finding success.

This story was originally published on The Uproar on October 24, 2018.