In an almost surreal turn of events, Harvard is currently being investigated for discrimination by the U.S. Department of Education after a rejected Asian-American applicant alleged last August that his or her race played an undue role in the rejection. Making such a claim in the first place smacks of hubris—it is difficult to argue that any applicant definitely deserved to have gotten into Harvard, no matter how good his or her SAT scores or impressive his or her extracurriculars. Amazingly qualified applicants get rejected from Harvard all the time, making it almost impossible for this student to prove that it was his race, instead of any other factor, which resulted in his not being admitted. But while the student's individual case may be impossible to prove, it is likely that overall, Asians are rarely the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action. Yet this particular case bears no evidence of undue discrimination and can at the most be considered a necessary consequence of race-based affirmative action, which is ultimately a good admissions policy.
To begin, the Supreme Court has already approved affirmative action systems similar to Harvard's in the case Bakke v. California, wherein the court ruled that holistic approaches to admissions, like Harvard's, which took into account race alongside many other factors was acceptable, while racial quotas were not. In reviewing applications to Harvard, admission officers strive to find applicants who not only contribute their intellectual talents to the University, but also their diverse experiences. One of the ways such diversity of background can be found is in racial diversity.
It is furthermore unclear that affirmative action is unduly harming those of Asian descent at Harvard, and in fact the evidence indicates otherwise. For comparison, the University of California system had no affirmative action policy of any kind in 2008 and 40 percent of the student body was Asian, when Asians made up 12 percent of the population of California as a whole. This statistic means that absent affirmative action Asians were about three times more prevalent in the UC system than they were in California as a whole. The U.S., the country Harvard overwhelmingly relies on for its undergraduate class, is a little under five percent Asian, but Harvard's student body is 17 percent Asian, meaning that the proportion of Asian Americans at Harvard is roughly three times greater than in the U.S. as a whole—indicating that affirmative action is not resulting in far fewer Asians being admitted than there would be otherwise. While the racial makeup of Harvard’s applicant pool is not released, making it impossible to say for sure how race affects admissions, it would certainly appear that Asians are by no means being singled out by affirmative action.
When judging a student's accomplishments, admission officers ought to look not only at what students have done, but also what they have done with the opportunities afforded to them. Achieving despite one's circumstances is better proof of one’s talents than succeeding because of them. A student in a high-powered private high school who has taken four AP tests may look more impressive than another from a public high school who has only taken three, unless one takes into account the fact that the first student took a few of the many AP classes their school offered while the second had to study on his own because no such classes were available to him.
Taking into account individual situations helps admission officers judge a student’s abilities accurately. Along these lines we believe admissions officers ought to recognize that there are many racial groups which are significantly less privileged in America at large, so it makes sense to give them a slight advantage in admissions to make up for this fact. Without such an advantage to cancel out the relative lack of opportunities that they face, well-qualified minority students who only appear less impressive on paper could easily face rejection due to the exigencies of their race. It would be a tragedy if a single misguided lawsuit were allowed to destroy a progressive University policy that is necessary to ensuring true fairness in Harvard's admissions.