Convenient Elitism

Harvard is not a meritocracy. Not only do the costs of this system weigh disproportionately upon Asian Americans, the considerations prioritized above merit also come at the expense of true diversity beyond racial tokenism: a diversity of socioeconomic background and representation from within racial groups.

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To pretend that applicants’ qualifications and life experiences are all that matter in admissions only results in superficial explanations for the discrepancies in admissions rates among different groups. College admission is an unavoidably subjective process, and, according to the admissions office, the vast majority of applicants could be successful at Harvard. The limited number of places available demands some kind of secondary screening process beyond academic ability, and rightly so: All students are more than just numbers and contribute both inside and outside the classroom. That said, the rosy vision of the admissions process as choosing a diverse set of the best of the best is not the whole story.

Harvard, for better or worse, would not be Harvard without legacies, athletes, and underrepresented minorities, considerations that complicate an already not-so-meritocratic process. Recent discussions regarding the lower acceptance rate for apparently more qualified Asian American applicants have revealed an ugly bias against Asian Americans at Ivy League admissions offices. According to Jerome Karabel’s book “The Chosen,” this bias has been prevalent since the 1980s.

In fact, in response to public pressure about discrimination and quotas in 1988, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 asserted that “while Asian Americans are slightly stronger than whites on academic criteria, they are slightly less strong on extracurricular criteria.” These comments are eerily reminiscent of the stereotyping of Jews in attempts to limit their enrollment in the early 20th century.

Daniel Golden reveals in “The Price of Admission” that Harvard admissions officers rank “Asian American candidates on average below whites in ‘personal qualities,’” as well as frequently comment that they are “‘quiet/shy” and “hard workers.” Without evidence to substantiate these generalizations, these comments smack of a self-fulfilling stereotype: Admissions officers expect Asian applicants to have such qualities, and therefore see these in them more so than they would in a non-Asian applicant. Besides the intrinsically problematic nature of such generalizations, since when did shy, quiet, and hardworking somehow become “below average personal qualities?”

We, the students of this university, are not some hand-selected intellectual elite that unquestionably earned our place here. We were chosen to reflect diverse forms of merit in an arguably arbitrary way. Asian Americans are underrepresented relative to their academic performance simply because, in light of other considerations that are prioritized above merit, there are more qualified Asian applicants than will be accepted. Rationalizations based on speculation about the personal qualities of these students compared to those of other ethnic groups are based on ill-informed and racist stereotypes.

Arguably, there are benefits that come with preferring legacies and athletes, but these come at the cost of not only rejecting well qualified Asian applicants but also admitting a more diverse candidate pool. Karabel reports in “The Chosen” that 40 percent of legacies were admitted in 2002 compared to 11 percent of other applicants. There is a bias here that is not simply based on merit: While one might argue that legacy admits are simply correlated with better qualifications, high-performing Asian Americans are suffering the opposite of this kind of preferential admission.

Furthermore, former Princeton President William G. Bowen and interim University President Derek C. Bok show in their book “The Shape of the River” that only one percent of white students at the most selective institutions come from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds, while over 90 percent of students at these selective institutions come from households above the median American income ($60,000 per year). This lack in socioeconomic diversity is also linked to racial diversity, skewing not only students’ perceptions of what is normal or average in this country, but also what racial categories such as “Asian American” really represent.

While race does tend to correlate with socioeconomic status, a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds is represented in the category of Asian Americans. Comprised of all people from Asian descent, the majority of whom are close to the immigrant experience, Asian Americans came to the U.S. as everything from job-seeking professionals to refugees fleeing oppressive regimes. A recent post to The Crimson’s blog, The Magenta, admitted that The Crimson’s editorial on Asian American admissions used the term “loosely” to denote people of East Asian descent, completely disregarding entire subpopulations of the term “Asian American.” Sadly, this casual use is far from uncommon but does a serious disservice to populations such as underrepresented Southeast Asian Americans, who were found in a study by New York University to have one of the highest high school dropout rates.

When considering how much further admissions must progress in order to include these and other often forgotten communities, there is more to consider than race. Our concern is not simply about clarifying the contentions regarding Asians in the college admissions process; it is about acknowledging that privileging legacies, athletes, and other groups necessarily precludes a meritocracy.

There is a fine line between subjectivity and systematic exclusivity, and the comments documented by Golden attest to how easily the former can lead to the latter when the process loses transparency and accountability. We sacrifice meritocracy because of our belief in the merit of diversity, but it is our responsibility to ensure that this diversity is not used to justify a convenient elitism.



Deborah Y. Ho ’07 is a biochemistry concentrator in Mather House. She is the co-founder and co-president of the Asian American Women’s Association. Shayak Sarkar ’07 is an applied math concentrator in Mather House.