The Path to Social Equity in Higher Ed Doesn’t Run Through Harvard

Last Thursday, I wrote about the Harvard affirmative action case and what I see as a broken system of racial preferences at elite colleges. Today, I want to broaden the scope a bit and talk about higher education in general and what life might be like after the Supreme Court ultimately decides the fate of affirmative action.

I try to avoid the prediction game, but it seems unlikely that a conservative majority on the court will judge in Harvard’s favor. The decision will almost certainly be limited to school admissions, but it is likely to open the floodgates for lawsuits that target racial preferences in all other parts of American life. This practice, aimed at achieving racial balance — often to counteract racist policies and systems — will be under direct threat. This sets up a dilemma that a pro-affirmative action student I interviewed in 2019 expressed by saying: “I don’t want to defend Harvard. But it’s the better of two evils.”

He may very well be right. Given the destruction that could come to all programs that resemble affirmative action in any way, perhaps Asian applicants and their families should accept a system that certainly seems to discriminate against them, at least in the case of Harvard admissions, but whose dissolution will also lead to a more inequitable world. This, for years, was my position on the matter. But such magnanimity usually requires a great deal of privilege and comfort — it is the capitulation of people like me who have already reaped all the rewards of prestigious degrees.

It’s nearly impossible to build a collective political vision around such abstract ideas of self-sacrifice. It might work to ask assimilated, progressive Asian Americans to overlook clear instances of discrimination and assume the role of the guilty white liberal. But even if the goal is to create a more communal and less cutthroat vision of education, is it fair to ask working-class families with no cultural capital to send their children to U.C. Santa Cruz instead of Stanford?

I recently watched Debbie Lum’s documentary “Try Harder!” about Lowell High School in San Francisco. Up until 2020 when the San Francisco school board changed Lowell’s admissions policy, it was test-in, much like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science high schools in New York City. Most of the students at Lowell are Asian American, as is the case at those New York schools.

In a scene early in the film, a physics teacher at Lowell addresses a classroom full of kids about their upcoming college applications. He suggests they temper their expectations. “You look at the Ivy League schools and even if you are a student who should be accepted at a school like this, you may not get in anyway,” he says. “And that, in many cases, has to do with a little thing called ethnicity.” He then flashes a slide that reads, “You’re Asian! And these country club schools don’t want their precious campuses turned into U.C. Irvine!” (U.C. Irvine is about 41 percent Asian.)

This is the perceived reality for many Asian American students and their parents. The response to these concerns cannot be the typical gaslighting and denial that’s become normalized in progressive circles. Nor should we ask teenagers to balance their own academic ambitions with some vaguely stated progressive goal of diversity.

I do not believe that there is a culturally or biologically determined reason Asian students have done so well in academic fields. Rather, the push for perfect G.P.A.s and SAT scores comes, in large part, from the realization that if you’re an immigrant with a distinct language barrier, zero connections to the professional workplace and very little understanding about how this country works, the academic grind is the only clear pathway for your child to move up in socioeconomic status. This is true not only for many Asian immigrant families, but also for many first- and second- generation Black and Latino immigrants.

What’s needed in an increasingly multiethnic country, then, is a broader vision of equity that’s less obsessed with racial disparities and representation at elite institutions and far more focused on how people from all backgrounds can invest in higher education as a collective good. Harvard’s comical racial machinations and the wealth of its student body should be more than enough to convince the public that there is no vision of true equity within the gates of the Ivy League.

OK, but what about affirmative action at nonelite colleges?

There’s a common misconception that every college in the United States employs some form of affirmative action. The truth is that a majority of colleges in this country let in most of their applicants and serve a relatively local population that more or less reflects the demographics of the area. For example, only 14.1 percent of undergraduate students at Cal State East Bay are white. By comparison, 78 percent of undergraduates at Chadron State College in Nebraska are white. This doesn’t mean that Chadron State discriminates against minority applicants or that Cal State East Bay has the greatest minority recruitment program of all time. The reality is that both schools aren’t selective — Chadron takes everyone — and their student bodies simply reflect the people who apply.

In 2014, there were only 352 colleges that publicly stated that they considered race in the admissions process, according to a 2017 study. That’s less than 10 percent of all the two- and four-year colleges in the country. The study also found that most exclusive schools considered the race of the applicant. This makes sense. The only schools that need to make decisions based on race are those schools that need to choose among applicants at all.

So what can we do?

I’ve written in an earlier edition of this newsletter about the role that community colleges could play in ensuring a more equitable and open path toward upward mobility in this country. Public colleges already take thousands of kids a year from the working and middle classes. Expanded and fully normalized pipelines from community colleges to state universities could provide opportunities not only for poor students of color, but also for economically disadvantaged students from all backgrounds.

This system, which would be modeled, in part, after the Canadian public university system, would reduce the stress on high school students to meet the impossible standards of elite colleges. The University of Toronto, which U.S. News and World Report ranked as the top university in Canada last year, has an enrollment of over 74,000 undergraduates, far more than the number of students enrolled at all eight Ivy League schools combined. There are highly competitive, specialized programs at Toronto and other universities in Canada, but they exist within the overall structure of the public university, which means that for the most part, there isn’t a college track for the elites of Canada and one for everyone else. If you care about your grades in high school, chances are you will be able to attend the university in your province. And you will almost certainly not be exclusively surrounded by the wealthy elite.

Last September, House Democrats released a bill that included language curtailing endowment taxes on private colleges, provided they offer “sufficient grants and scholarships” for some students. This move coincided with a banner year for many elite universities that saw their coffers swell during the pandemic. Cornell, Dartmouth and Yale all reported over 40 percent returns on their investments in 2021. This only accelerated a longstanding trend: Between 1990 and 2010, the return on capital endowments for universities with endowments larger than $1 billion grew roughly 50 percent faster than universities with endowments that totaled less than $100 million.

Rather than offer these universities what amounts to a break on their taxes, the Biden administration should raise them considerably. Lowering tuition for a select number of students who have already gotten into highly selective schools does very little actual good — most of those schools have robust financial aid programs anyway. I believe that the money raised from aggressively taxing endowments should be used to fund community colleges and state university programs instead, so that more students could benefit.

Taxes, alone, will not suddenly create a more communal vision of higher education, nor will they persuade everyone to fight for it. A profound cultural shift is needed that is likely to take decades to see through. The good news is that nobody really seems to like the system we have now in the United States, with its brutal competition, its winner-take-all mentality and its undue focus on a handful of elite schools. Why would we center so much of the conversation on places that most students will never even visit, when we could be building a more robust public system that educates everyone?

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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