The controversy over race and admissions at elite educational institutions is heating up. Harvard University is under pressure to stop discriminating against Asian Americans, who make up a smaller percentage of its student body (22.2 percent ) than their grades and test scores would warrant. Meanwhile, Stuyvesant High School in New York, a selective public school, is under pressure to start discriminating against Asian Americans who make up 72.9 percent of its students.
This is an agonizing debate. On one side are smart Asian American students who study hard. Many are first- generation immigrants whose parents toil at bodegas or dry cleaners, sacrificing everything so that their children can get an education. It is heartbreaking to tell those kids that they can’t get into the school of their choice.
But if Asian Americans predominate in elite institutions, that means opportunities are being denied to African Americans, Latinos or whites who also grow up in poverty but in cultures — whether in the inner city or Appalachia — that stigmatize rather than celebrate learning. Many minorities must also cope with racial discrimination, crime, broken homes and police abuse to a far greater extent than Asian Americans do, and they lack access to test tutors.
In the past, I would have reflexively taken the side of the Asian Americans — and not just because I have two stepchildren who are half Asian. As an immigrant myself (I was born in Russia) and a product of the meritocracy (I have a BA from the University of California at Berkeley and an MA from Yale University), I’ve always believed in rewarding academic merit. But as I’ve grown older, I have come to appreciate that there is more to merit than test scores alone and that there is value in diversity.
The tipping point for me, so to speak, was a 2005 New Yorker article, “Getting In,” by Malcolm Gladwell. He pointed out that Ivy League schools such as Harvard are not just trying to select the best academic performers but also the students who will go on to have the greatest success after graduation — and those aren’t necessarily the ones who got the highest test scores. Gladwell cited a study of graduates from Hunter College Elementary School in New York, who were selected solely based on a test, and found that “they weren’t nearly as distinguished as they were expected to be.”
By contrast, a study of male Ivy League athletes found that, “despite their lower SAT scores and grades, and despite the fact that many of them are members of minorities and come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than other students,” they “turn out to earn a lot more than their peers.” These jocks are hard-working, competitive, gregarious and team-oriented — qualities that ultimately turn out to be more important than pure cognitive ability.
There is, moreover, value in a diverse student body. You learn more about life if you go to class with people who are different from you — who have different abilities, different geographic origins, different social classes, different sexualities, different religions, different political views and, yes, different ethnicities. You don’t necessarily want a student body made up entirely of bookworms — and I say that as a bookworm myself.
You can’t achieve a diverse class simply by taking the top test scores. Harvard found in a 2013 review that if it selected solely based on academic achievement, the number of Asian Americans would rise from what was then 19 percent to 43 percent — compared with a U.S. population that is just 5.7 percent Asian. The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that schools could take race into account as long as it is one factor among many, and Harvard appears to be doing just that.
I have greater reservations about New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempts to eliminate the admissions test for Stuyvesant and seven other selective public high schools. He wants to guarantee admission to the top 7 percent of students at every middle school even though, as one Stuyvesant graduate noted, at 1 out of 6 middle schools “not even 7 percent of seventh graders passed the state math exam.” Admitting students who aren’t able to keep up does them no favors and can destroy a school’s academic quality. De Blasio’s interim plan, to reserve 20 percent of the slots for low-income students who just missed the test cutoff, may make more sense.
No admissions policy will please everyone. The good news is that the stakes aren’t as high as parents think. As Gladwell pointed out, students who are good enough to get into elite schools will do well in life even if they go elsewhere. This isn’t Korea or Japan where your life is pretty much over if you don’t get into one of the top few universities. The United States is a big, sprawling country where — as the careers of individuals as varied as Sen. Mitch McConnell (University of Louisville), Philip Roth (Bucknell University) and Steve Jobs (Reed College dropout) attest — there are lots of ways to succeed even if you didn’t go to an Ivy League college or an elite high school.