Sabria Kazmi’s background defies easy classification. She has grandparents from Tennessee, Iraq and two countries in South Asia.
So when the 18-year-old filled out her college application, she puzzled over what boxes to check. The task is all the more sensitive this year amid the mounting debate over the role of race and ethnicity in admissions.
First, Kazmi came to white. Check. Then Asian. Check. Followed by Middle Eastern and Pakistani. Check, check. She found a blank space to write in her Bangladeshi roots.
Kazmi, a high school senior in Northern Virginia, could have gone further because one grandmother is part Cherokee. But she stopped there.
“I remember someone once telling me something like, ‘Oh, you should put Native American on your college applications. It will help you,’ ” Kazmi said. “I of course did not because it would not be fair for me to claim to have the same culture and to have faced the same obstacles as someone with a larger connection to their Native American ancestry.”
The roiling national debate over affirmative action in college admissions has raised the stakes for these questions about identity. Hundreds of thousands of applicants are wrestling with whether and how to describe their race and ethnicity and what that information should mean to the gatekeepers reading their files.
“There is a lot of interest in self-identifying — ‘who I am’ and what that means,” said Annie Reznik, executive director of the Coalition for College, a nonprofit that provides an online application portal. “A driving force of that is recognizing the frustration that students feel when they are pigeonholed into a box that they don’t think is applicable.”
This year, competitive colleges are facing heightened scrutiny because of a federal lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian Americans. Harvard denied the allegations during a trial this fall that explored its use of race in weighing applications. A verdict is expected in coming months. The case could threaten affirmative action efforts nationwide if it reaches the Supreme Court.
Harvard and other schools using “race-conscious” admissions say race is one factor among many in reviewing all aspects of an application. They say racial diversity brings compelling educational benefits to campus. Critics say none of those benefits outweighs the harm done to applicants who might lose the chance to go to a prestigious college because they weren’t born to a desired demographic.
At one of the nation’s top high schools, Kazmi and six other students keenly aware of this debate wrestled with identity, equity and ambition in a recent conversation with The Washington Post. Officials at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va., helped The Post convene them for a 90-minute focus group on race and admissions. The seniors, all aiming for selective colleges, held strong and sometimes clashing views.
Wenxi Huang, 17, confessed to an “itching, nagging feeling” when he checked the box on his application indicating Asian ancestry. The Chinese American student felt the information should be irrelevant in admission decisions. “I just want to live in a country where my race doesn’t matter,” he said. “Where I’m never judged or picked or excluded for my race.”
Jennifer Hernández, also 17, a Salvadoran American, wants colleges to take race and ethnicity into account. Her Hispanic identity “is something that makes me who I am,” she said. “It adds to my character and adds to my personality.”
These arguments are familiar at Thomas Jefferson High, known as TJ. The selective public high school, with about 1,800 students from across the region, sends graduates every year to top colleges.
TJ screens applicants for its ninth-grade class through test scores, grades, essays and teacher recommendations. About 70 percent of its students are of Asian ancestry, and about 21 percent are white, according to county data. Fewer than 5 percent are black or Hispanic — a statistic that fuels perennial debate in Northern Virginia about access and equity. (Another 5 percent identify as multiracial.)
TJ’s admissions team does not consider race. But many selective colleges do — and they want as much detail as they can get.
The Coalition for College and the Common Application, another online portal for college applicants, allow students to choose as many racial and ethnic identifiers as they wish — or leave the section blank. About 40,000 Common App users in the last cycle did not disclose race or ethnicity — 3.7 percent of the total.
For the Coalition for College, 2 percent of about 108,000 users declined to answer. Reznik said data suggested most applicants are eager to share as much as possible about race or ethnicity. More than 97 percent, she said, answered follow-up questions that enabled them to pinpoint a place or region of ancestry. For example, users who identified as Hispanic or Latino could then click one or more boxes from a menu of Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain, Central America or South America. Or they could fill in a blank to give another answer.
Ethan Phillips, 17, a TJ senior, said he paused briefly on the race question and consulted with his parents. He had heard speculation that identifying as white could have “a negative effect on the rest of the application.”
Phillips considered whether he could, or should, note his family’s Irish immigrant heritage. “My parents and grandparents came from farmers and blue-collar workers in Missouri,” he said. “That’s part of my story.” But there didn’t seem to be an easy way to indicate all of that. He checked the “white” box and moved on.
Phillips said he supports considering race and ethnicity as long as those factors do not determine the final decision. “There’s a big difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome,” he said. “We need to be ensuring that every student has an equal opportunity to get into the college that they wish to.”
Several students were sympathetic to the idea that colleges should strongly consider other elements in an applicant’s background, such as family income, parental education and even geographic origin.
“Because kids from Idaho don’t have the same things as the kids from NoVa,” said Pari Parajuli, 17, using a shorthand for Northern Virginia. But she said race also should be taken into account as a matter of social justice. “It provides more context,” she said. Parajuli identified on her application as Asian and wrote in her Nepali heritage.
Michael Yohannes, 17, the son of Eritrean immigrants, who identifies as African American, said race-based affirmative action should be used in tandem with socioeconomic affirmative action. In other words, he said, colleges should seek to help marginalized racial groups that also are in financial need. “I don’t believe the higher income should have that kind of affirmative action applied to them,” he said.
Yohannes also said he was dubious of the idea that black students with recent African immigrant heritage should get the same benefit in the process as those whose ancestors have centuries of roots in America and its long history with slavery and Jim Crow. “I don’t think that should happen,” he said, “even though I know this is going ‘against’ my background. But I’m just saying, on the concept of fairness.”
Sebastián Ibarrarán, 17, the son of Mexican immigrants, said race and ethnicity remain crucial for understanding the background of applicants, regardless of family income. He noted that he lives in McLean, an affluent suburb, and comes from a family with experience in higher education. On paper, he said, he might look nearly the same as many of his white neighbors who are not Hispanic.
“But the thing is, none of these people who lived around me, they never had to deal with, in fifth grade, one of their friends saying, ‘Oh, Mexicans are rapists and druggies,’ ” Ibarrarán said. Nor, he said, did those neighbors face assumptions about the educational credentials of Hispanic students.
Ibarrarán said he often senses put-downs from people who believe he doesn’t have to try as hard as his peers to get into top colleges, that his SAT scores don’t have to be quite as high to make the cut. “Not only is that really hard,” he said, “but it’s also false because these colleges, they actually see a lot more than you think they see.”
Hernández said similar experiences shape her views. She grew emotional as she recalled the “differences in expectations” that she has faced while growing up as a Hispanic student accepted into a highly competitive public high school. She said she has endured taunts about the likelihood of her becoming a teen mom before becoming a scientist. (For the record, she is not a mother.) There are those, she said, “who think you got here because you didn’t earn it. Even though you did. You worked hard — maybe even twice as hard, maybe three times as hard, to get where you are. But it’s never acknowledged.”
Huang said he is convinced that race-based affirmative action is racist. “I can’t tolerate it,” he said. But Huang said he values racial diversity on college campuses and trusts admission officers can make that happen by looking at other elements in the background of applicants. Racial diversity, he said, “shouldn’t be the first thing you look at. It should be something that happens naturally based on diversity in other aspects.”
This month, high-achieving students at TJ and elsewhere are hearing the first wave of decisions on college applications. Many will wonder why they got rejected even though they have stellar grades and test scores. In all likelihood, they’ll never know what role race played, if any. “When you get denied from college,” Ibarrarán said, “they don’t send you a letter with a reason why you got denied.”