This college freshman is worried about affirmative action — but not that it will keep him out of Harvard

The World
Young man at podium in press conference with signs behind him

Jason Fong is at the age when affirmative action programs could make a crucial difference in his life. He’s 17 and often uses social media and his blog to speak out about college admissions policies that consider race as a factor to create a diverse student body.

Fong, a recent graduate of Redondo Union High School in southern California, feels it’s more urgent than ever to take a stand after the Department of Justice said early this month that it is investigating discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions. To be clear, Fong is in favor of affirmative action.

But, in 2014, a plaintiff called Students for Fair Admission (SFFA) alleged that Harvard, in its holistic assessment of students, effectively sets admissions quotas that are advantageous to blacks and Latinos, but are unfair to Asians and whites. The group is suing Harvard on the behalf of an unnamed coalition of applicants who were denied admission to high profile colleges, including one anonymous Chinese American who was not admitted despite having perfect SAT and ACT scores and graduating at the top of his class.

Last fall, Fong partnered with Asian Americans Advancing Justice to support race-conscious admissions at Harvard. The civil rights group intervened in the Harvard case to support affirmative action programs at the Ivy League university. 

Woman at podium in front of Supreme Court
Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in Fisher v. Texas, speaks outside the US Supreme Court on December 9, 2015 with her lawyer, Bert Rein, behind her and Edward Blum on the right. In June, 2016, the court ruled that colleges may continue to consider race among other factors in their admissions criteria.Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The plaintiff group is led by Edward Blum, a former stockbroker who also orchestrated Abigail Fisher’s affirmative action suit against the University of Texas. Blum declined to be interviewed for this story, but he did point to a 2016 Gallup poll that shows most Americans think race should not be a factor in college admissions.

“It is statistically impossible for Asians to support racial considerations in college admissions,” he wrote in an email. The Gallup poll points out that blacks and Hispanic respondents were more likely to support race-conscious admissions than whites, but does not specifically report Asian responses.

When Fong joined the lawsuit with a declaration to the court, he was a high school senior in the process of applying to universities — including Harvard. Speaking out for social justice comes naturally to this digital native. He’s been active on Twitter and involved in political discussion since he was 15.

Fong says affirmative action policies would enhance his education.

“If I had ended up attending Harvard, that program [affirmative action] would contribute to a diverse and inclusive environment,” says Fong. “That would build cultural competency and would expose me to people with different viewpoints and backgrounds that would allow me to develop a more well-rounded perspective.”

Fong recently participated in a #NotYourWedge Twitter chat. The hashtag refers to the perception of Asians as the “model minority,” often to defend policies that harm blacks and Latinos. Oiyan Poon, assistant professor of higher education at Colorado State University, helped organize the chat and recruited Chinese Americans like Fong to participate. Too often, she says, news reports focus only on very vocal Chinese immigrants who take anti-affirmative action positions.

Austin Jia, for example, is a Duke University sophomore who was highlighted in a New York Times report on the Harvard lawsuit. The report also featured the perspective of an Asian American who supports affirmative action, but Jia’s story framed the report. He is not a plaintiff but says that he did not gain admission to Ivy League colleges while classmates with lower scores did.

“I felt that the whole concept of meritocracy — which America likes to say it exercises all the time — I felt that principle was defeated a little in my mind,” he said.

These kinds of views, Poon says, are often used to represent Asian American perspectives even if they don’t represent the majority. A 2016 AAPI Data survey found that the majority of Asian Americans support race-conscious college admissions. 

charts with survey results
Charts from a 2016 AAPI Data survey on the political views of Asian Americas. The entire study is available as a PDF.

Poon is studying the attitudes of Asian Americans toward affirmative action, but analyzing the results based on factors such as gender, income and how recently the person came to America. Last September, she participated in an event in Washington, DC, organized by a newly formed group, United Chinese Americans. There, she ran a mock admissions activity; participants were divided into small groups and given the mission statement of an unnamed university. Each group was tasked with coming up with criteria for admissions based on those goals. Then each team was given the same five sample essays from applicants.

Some groups, playing the role of hyper-selective universities, were allowed to select only one student; others could admit three. Poon says that at the end of the exercise, participants — many of them recent immigrants — were surprised.

“Several people came up to me, and said, ‘I didn’t know it was like this,’” she says. “Even at this Chinese conference, most of the groups did not choose the stereotypical Chinese applicant.”

Which is to say that not every worthy applicant is like Fong, a third-generation American of Chinese and Korean descent with two college-educated parents.

Michelle Li, a former English teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts, saw a wide range of Asian students during her 15 years in the classroom.

“I’ve seen students who have traditional Asian parents who feel like it’s Harvard or nothing,” says Li. “I’ve also had students who come from the underrepresented Asian backgrounds — Cambodian or Hmong — and they do what a lot of traditionally underrepresented groups do. They don’t identify themselves as potential for competitive colleges. They’ll just apply for community college.”

Quyen Dihn, executive director of the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC), says the argument that affirmative action discriminates against Asians does not take into account this diversity.

“One in three Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmongs lack a high school degree,” she says, referring to 2010 Census data. “Two in three lack a college degree.”

The plaintiffs against Harvard say that universities should admit students based on scores. Dinh believes that could actually hurt some Asian Americans.

“Often test scores are looked at as strongest criteria for admission. Research also shows SAT scores are correlated to family income,” explains Dihn. “Our communities are coming from low-income neighborhoods. Test scores are not true reflection of their ability.”

Dihn’s support of affirmative action is also personal. She is a child of Vietnamese immigrants and never dreamed of going to college, but she was admitted to UC Berkeley in 2001. California voters banned affirmative action in 1996, so the state’s public universities no longer considered race as a factor in admissions.

Organizations against affirmative action often argue that if race were removed from consideration in admissions, the enrollment of Asian Americans would go up, as it did in California. Almost 10 percent more Asian Americans have enrolled at the campuses of the University of California since 1995. But the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education at UCLA looked instead at admissions rates. Their study found that in the 10 years after the end of affirmative action, the percentage of Asian Americans applicants admitted to the University of California has declined. And in UC Berkeley, it declined by over 16 percent. (PDF)

Dihn believes she benefitted as an applicant from a process known as holistic review, adopted in the University of California in the last decade, which doesn’t consider race but does take into account life factors and personal qualities, in addition to test scores and GPAs.

“I would have never been able to get in based on SATs alone,” she says. Once she got her foot in the door, she was successful: she graduated from UC Berkeley in 2005 with a 4.0 grade point average.

Advancing Justice attorney Nicole Gon Ochi says that race currently factors very little in most college admissions.

“A common misconception is that affirmative action is equivalent to quotas on Asian American student admissions. Another frequent misconception is that Asian students need higher standardized test scores to get into elite universities,” she says.

She refers to an oft-cited 2009 report by Princeton sociology professor Thomas Espenshade. Based on his data analysis, he says that there is no definitive evidence that affirmative action disadvantages Asian applicants.

That’s why, Fong says, he’s surprised that few Asian American students at his high school, which is about 13 percent Asian, believe that race should be a consideration in university admissions.

“They felt that affirmative action hampered their chances of college admission even though it’s not true,” he says, adding that there is no “bamboo ceiling” for Asian Americans in universities.

Ochi, though, is not so sure.

“If there is discrimination at elite institutions, it’s not caused by affirmative action. I don’t think there’s ever been any findings that Asian Americans are discriminated against at all,” she says. “But if they were, it would be because of white selection advantage.”

While there may not be a bias against Asians, she says, that the criteria tend to favor qualities more common in white applicants.

Fong, who just finished the application process, explains what some of those criteria might be: “What about students who are legacies? What about students who are athletes? Their maybe poor grades and test scores are overlooked because of their athletic talent,” he says. (Fong had plenty of extra-curricular activities; he was co-captain of the varsity wrestling team, wrote for the high school newspaper and volunteered for many political causes, including Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.)

The 2014 lawsuit against Harvard has been on hold, awaiting the Supreme Court review of Fisher v. University of Texas. In that case, the high court upheld the university’s right to use race as one as one of many factors to ensure a diverse student body.

Ochi expects the Harvard case to move forward next year. Fong, however, won’t be part of any future briefs. He was offered early admission to his first choice, Wesleyan University, and withdrew his application to Harvard. But his choice, he says, was not about rejection or acceptance. Wesleyan was just more appealing.

“There’s a strong tradition of campus activism, the student body was really inclusive and diverse,” says Fong, who plans to wrestle at the collegiate level. “It’s really more that Wesleyan was a good fit for me. I didn’t get rejected by Harvard.”

Advancing Justice is not sure whether it will respond to the Department of Justice’s investigation, but it will continue to push back on the lawsuit against Harvard. The organization plans to file declarations from as many as 20 students in defense of the university’s race-conscious admissions process.

In the meantime, of the 2,056 students admitted to Harvard this year, more than half are minorities. Asian American students are 22.2 percent of those admitted. African Americans are 14.6, Latinos are 11.6, Native Americans are 1.9 and Native Hawaiians are 0.5 percent of the incoming class of 2021.

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