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Distracted by Diversity

By Daniel Choi

The latest answer to the perennial question, "What's wrong with Harvard?" is the lack of minority representation on campus. Students at Harvard have lately expressed deep concern over the fact that Blacks and Hispanics are under-represented at the College. They blame Harvard's recruitment policy, which they claim should more aggressively recruit more lower-income minority students. By expanding the applicant pool, they reason, Harvard will ultimately admit a more representative number of Black and Hispanic candidates. Their approach is not only wrong, but it does a disservice to the real problems that underlie minority representation at Harvard.

If these critics took a look at the Asian American community on campus, they might learn a very different lesson. Asian Americans at Harvard comprise 20 percent of the class of 1996, over five times their representation at large. This represents a three percent increase from last year and a 100 percent increase from seven years ago. If we agree with those who are quick to criticize Harvard's admission office, then we should be equally prone to the conclusion that Harvard has played an active role in recruiting and admitting Asian American applicants.

There is clear evidence, however, that admissions committees at elite colleges are turning away a growing percentage of Asian American applicants in the interests of "diversity." A study of UC Berkeley's admission procedures, for example, revealed that in 1989, Berkeley turned down more than 2500 white and Asian applicants with straight-A averages, while virtually accepting every Black applicant with a GPA of a B or higher. A university admission report from UCLA in 1987 revealed that Asian applicants had a 41 percent acceptance rate to the university, compared to 85 percent for Hispanics and 73 percent for Blacks.

A 1986 Stanford inquiry discovered that between 1982 and 1985 Asian Americans were one-third less likely than whites to be offered admission, despite the fact that they showed on average better academic credentials. Just last month, a court found Berkeley Law School guilty of illegally discriminating against qualified Asian applicants in favor of other, under-represented minorities. Harvard, too, was investigated last year--although later cleared--for charges of having discriminatory admissions practices that unfairly disadvantaged Asian Americans.

Critics of Harvard's admissions policies must realize that the process is a zero-sum game. It is impossible for other minority groups to increase their representations without a corresponding decrease in the enrollment of other groups in the college, namely Asian Americans and whites.. Calls for increased minority representation must keep the interests of all minorities in mind.

At Harvard in 1982, Asian American who were admitted into Harvard had a combined SAT average of 1467, compared to the white average of 1355. In other words, an Asian American applicant in 1982 had to score an average of 100 points higher than a white applicant to be offered admission. In fact, the mean combined SAT score for Asian Americans is now the highest for all ethnic groups including whites. And contrary to charges that the SAT is culturally biased, Asian American currently score second to whites on the verbal section--despite the fact that half of these Asian American students speak English as a second language.

The only thing Harvard has to do with increasing Asian American academic and extracurricular achievement is the mere fact that Harvard is there, as the most prestigious educational institution in America. When it comes to Black and Hispanic under-representation, on the other hand, students insist that Harvard itself is somehow to blame.

IIn fact, when it comes to the Asian American can community, it is economic stability and family involvement that gives them a significant advantage in producing qualified candidates for college admission. The Asian American family now earns an average of $35,900 a year--more than the average for white American families. Sociologists have also noted how heavy family involvement in education contributes especially to Asian American academic success. In 1987, Stanford sociologist S.M. Dornbush found that Asian high school students spend an average of 11.7 hours per week doing homework, compared to 8.6 hours for whites and less for Blacks and Hispanics.

By contrast, many Black and Hispanic communities continue to suffer from low incomes crime-ridden neighborhoods, broken homes, and poorly funded schools. According to a 1990 Census Bureau report, the Black poverty rate stood at 31.9% and the Hispanic poverty rate at 28.1%; the white poverty rate was 10.7% in 1990. Also in 1990, three out of five Black families were maintained by single parents.

It is completely unreasonable to expect that Blacks and Hispanics be proportionally represented at America's highly selective academic institutions. In the 1989 edition of profiles of College Bound Seniors, the College Entrance Examination Board reported that in 1988 fewer than 116 Blacks scored over 699 on the verbal SAT, and fewer than 342 scored over 699 on the math section. Fewer than 3000 Black students scored over 599 on either section, not nearly enough to give Blacks proportional representation at elite colleges nationwide. In 1988 Berkeley alone accepted over 800 Blacks as part of the class of 1992.

It therefore makes little sense to blame Harvard for the under-representation of these groups here, when the problem is really beyond the scope of the college admissions and recruiting process. What really needs our focused attention are minority communities beyond Harvard Yard--from the barrios to the inner city.

True education diversity can exist at Harvard only when all groups in society are on equal educational footing. Until then, it is better to accept the sober fact that it's not Harvard's fault that certain groups are underrepresented, just as as we recognize that Harvard contributed nothing to the growing representation of Asian Americans.

We should be mature enough to realize that Harvard is not the world, and that the world is more important than Harvard. The problem of diversity for 6400 undergraduates at Harvard should take second, maybe even third priority to the problems of the millions of economically and socially disadvantaged Americans who live outside our Ivory Tower. Diversity at Harvard should not become a distraction.

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