Being Noah Tesfaye #2: College and Affirmative Action—What Does it Mean?

I. The Introduction

By the title alone, I assume you are probably thinking that this is yet another piece by a black student arguing for affirmative action. And the truth is? You are right, sort of. As a first generation student, I sometimes struggle to understand the issues that plague the African American community. But the really honesty of the situation is that I’m a part of that group of American citizens, and I absolutely love it. Being a literal AFRICAN first, American second is something I am proud of and I wouldn’t change anything in the world about it.

As a person who will be applying in a year to universities, I cannot help but try to understand how colleges pick applicants and what they are looking for in order for me to get accepted. Last night, I stumbled across this New York Times article titled “What Colleges Want in an Applicant (Everything).” It pulled me in by its funny, albeit accurate description of the college applications process in the United States. It had an interesting argument for the fact that merit is no longer the only thing universities should think about in applicants, although it is a priority. The author, Eric Hoover, believes that schools are attempting to quantify all the skills and characteristics of applicants is impossible to do right for everyone. He shares that although some schools will attempt to evaluate accomplishments out of the classroom, it becomes difficult to assess those accomplishments when you compare students of higher-income families to lower-income families. How is a student from the South Side of Chicago who has to take care of his/her siblings going to compete with a student from Atherton who can afford a tutor every hour after school seven days a week? How is a student from the Bronx with two part-time jobs suppose to apply against a student from Park Avenue who’s parents give them internships at Fortune 500 companies?

II. The Case

The answer to that question, at least in theory, is affirmative action. The concept of granting a better opportunity to those disadvantaged by society in the applications process. This means that a school will attempt to account for the disadvantages of certain applicants and evaluate their applications based on the circumstances that students are faced with in high school. In theory, this will grant that student from the South Side a better chance of possibly getting into the school that the same Atherton applicant was applying to as well.

The idea of affirmative action has many sides and many opinions. First off, there are people who are either for or against affirmative action. Many of the people in favor argue that affirmative action is form of reparation. This outlines the idea that society places a predetermined status on certain people unable to overcome their lesser status. That means that in order to remedy this, universities should accept more students of varying socioeconomic and race backgrounds to remedy this issue in society.

Although this idea does make sense in theory, it has since been disputed and in the Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California V. Bakke in 1978, the idea of a racial quota for universities was destroyed. A white student demanded that he should have been awarded acceptance to the public university UC Davis School of Medicine because they were only evaluating merit in the application. He scored higher than many other minority students, yet was denied admission. He took the case to the Supreme Court, and they agreed that he was placed in an inherent disadvantage because in an application only evaluating merit for a PUBLIC university, he was denied acceptance because he was white. The school had quotas for the amount of minority students they wanted to include in their school, and they reserved those spots for minority students only. This inherently puts the white student at a disadvantage because the school application was merit-based and even he scored higher on his exams, he was being discriminated against.

By now,I hope you understand the issue when setting quotas with school diversity and acceptance. Schools have since adapted their affirmative action policies to adapt to the legal set by the Bakke case. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of affirmative action in the case Grutter V. Bollinger, where a white female student believed she was being discriminated against because she was denied admission into the University of Michigan Law School. Unlike the Bakke case, the Supreme Court argued that public institutions have the right to promote diversity as their ultimate goal in education. This means that if a school wants to accept a black student over a white student who share equal qualifications, or vice versa to bring more diversity to their school, they can do so legally. This was right around the time where schools began to use the term “wholistic application,” where they attempt to look at all the factors in your application to determine if you are what they want from future students. This in fact is is the most agreed-upon opinion when it comes to affirmative action. If a school believes in promoting diversity within their campus, they should the right to do so.

III. The Problems

Although I do support the concept of affirmative action, I also can there are some issues that exist with the policies that exist right now. First and foremost, living in Silicon Valley, a good percentage of my friends are Asian. They also happen to do extremely well when it comes to grades and standardized testing. So many of the people I know have scored well on the SAT, reaching well over a 1500, yet they sometimes do not make it into the amazing Ivy League schools they are ready to conquer. They do feel frustrated that their grades, no matter how hard they work, are not getting them to the places where, in many cases, they have every single qualification necessary to thrive there. This comes to the issue where there are thousands of Asian students who are doing so well at school, but universities are attempting to maintain their diversity, and this puts many of my friends at some sort of a disadvantage in the admissions process. The unfortunate case is that there aren’t enough spaces for all students who are qualified, and no matter how much a student believes he/she deserves to be at an elite university, the school cannot accept everyone.

On the flip-side, I was listening to a talk by Professor Richard Banks at the Stanford Law School, who argued a completely different problem that occurs with affirmative action. Many black and African students that are getting into schools are not actually students that are disadvantaged all of the time. Rather, they are often affluent students who have every single advantage many wealthy, white applicants have, and they are getting into the schools with the affirmative action policies that really should be going to more disadvantaged students with lower socioeconomic statuses. High-achieving students that are wealthier, in the top 20%, are three times as popular as lower-income, high-achieving students, the bottom 20%, overall in America. At schools like Stanford, that wealth ratio is 10 to 1. Average students in higher income situations are having a better opportunity than even the most high achieving low-income students. Even if universities are granting free tuition for low-income students, but those students have no one in their social circle from elite schools, they will never get those opportunities to get that free tuition because they never apply. The profound irony of this is that lower-income students will gain much more out of attending elite universities than middle and higher-income students, and lower-income students suffer more from not going to elite schools. Ultimately, Professor Banks is arguing that the problem with affirmative action is much more an economic issue than a racial one, and in actuality, students who know about the opportunity of Ivy League schools can follow the steps of people like Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayor.

IV. What is next?

The ultimate goal of affirmative action is to promote diversity in universities. Rather than letting race and culture determine what “diversity” means, actual inequality should determine the process for which affirmative action should be informed by. Race is a crucial and very important part of society. This the foundation for many of the inequalities and resources available to students. If one’s resources are determined by their race, then a school should and does have the right to accept that student if they see he/she promoting diversity at their university, both on a racial and socioeconomic level. All students who have the same skills and the capability to succeed at an elite university should have the same opportunity, and that their socioeconomic status should not determine their fate. This is an issue that I do not understand, and frankly don’t know if I will ever be able to understand. I struggle to understand who I am and how my opportunities will determine my fate. But I have opportunities, something that many students across the nation do never have. I have seen people close to me overcome tough circumstances and thrive. Two of my first cousins are at Princeton as I write this on full scholarships, and they continue to amaze me at accomplishing the dreams that I didn’t know as truly a possibility until I saw them make it. I cannot control how a teacher grades my paper, nor can I control how well I can understand AP Physics in class. The one thing I can control is how hard I work, how much I take advantage of the opportunities I have, and how I can help those around me succeed.

When I went to Ethiopia this past summer and visited my grandfather’s village, Wojerat, a two hour drive outside of Mekelle, I met a second cousin who was nearly my age. I saw how isolated she is, never getting the opportunity to pursue an education because she has to take care of her younger siblings. Every single day, I think about her and remind myself how grateful I am to have the privilege to be here in Silicon Valley. My grandfather walked 25 hours a week to go to school from that village, and he gave my mother the opportunity to come to this country, and as a result, me the opportunity to not have to worry about anything in life but school. I don’t know where I would be today if it wasn’t for Dr. Kiros working that hard, but I hope that one day, I can work just as hard to achieve greater things for society.

No matter what university I may attend in a few years, I want them to know that I will work as hard as I can to make the most of that opportunity. I struggle to grasp what my future holds, but I know that if I get the opportunity to one day go to a university like Princeton, Stanford, or Columbia, or rather any elite school, I want to change the world by getting those who have the skills to attend any university to get that same opportunity I received. If there is one thing I have learned thus far in my journey for college, it is that no one should ever deter you from achieving your dreams. I didn’t understand at first in sixth grade when my math teachers in elementary school didn’t want me to take the honors math classes even though I was doing so well, and then I realized in that moment there are people who don’t want you to succeed. I am telling you that you can do that. You can control how hard you work, how empathetic you are, and there will be people that recognize this, no matter how much that is hard to believe. I struggle to understand why I am working so hard and worry myself about what happens if no one recognizes the effort. But you and I have to know that it will pay off. The work will pay off. College is just the beginning, and I hope that more universities can continue to recognize the efforts of all students, especially those whose lives you, the university, can change with one yes.

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