What's important about the Harvard trial

Arguments in the Harvard trial wrapped up last week, and the judge is expected to make a ruling some time in the next few months. If you haven’t been following the case, here’s a pretty good summary of what you’d need to know.

Before I talk about the Harvard trial, I want to explain why I wasn’t going to talk about the Harvard trial.

The case is complicated and—at least at this point—kind of boring. Harvard is accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. There is no evidence that anyone with policy power at Harvard decided that Harvard wanted fewer Asian-American students or tried to find a way to deny more Asian-American applicants. That’s not what this case is about. The claim is that Asian-American applicants aren’t being accepted as often as test scores and GPA would lead a person to expect, especially when compared to the test scores and GPAs of accepted students of other ethnicities. They claim that one part of the admissions process is very vulnerable to bias against Asian Americans. When the case makes it to the Supreme Court—and it probably will—then the arguments will concern large constitutional questions about race as a factor in college admissions. At this stage, however, the trial is largely an argument between two economists’ analyses of the admissions data.

I have little faith in the motivations of the group bringing the suit. Harvard is being sued by Students for Fair Admissions, or SFFA, on behalf of a group of anonymous Asian-American students who were denied admission by Harvard. While I believe that equity and access for Asian-American students is important, and while I believe that most people at Harvard also think it’s important, I’m not convinced that SFFA actually thinks it’s important. SFFA isn’t trying to make sure that Asian Americans are better protected against discrimination; SFAA believes that there should be no racial protection whatsoever. SFFA is challenging Harvard because they want to end Affirmative Action altogether. Remember that in its current state, Affirmative Action may not include any sort of quotas. It also requires schools to use non-race-based methods of increasing diversity before any consideration of race can take place. For SFFA, that’s still too much, and they’re representing this group of students—who, to be fair, have a legitimate grievance—as a way to try again to knock out Affirmative Action.

What do I mean by “try again”? SFFA is an offshoot of Project on Fair Representation, and both are headed by Edward Blum. Blum is also behind Fisher v. University of Texas, which challenged affirmative action, and Shelby County v. Holder, which challenged a portion of the Voting Rights Act.

The point of this case against Harvard isn’t that Harvard is accused of keeping out Asian-Americans to make room for more white kids, but that it doesn’t let in enough Asian-Americans because it’s making room—through racial considerations—for Hispanic and African-American students.

Do I think that Blum is a bad person who whines about “reverse discrimination”? No. He seems to be a smart man who has made it his cause to implement a strict reading of the Civil Rights Act. Fine. But I do I think Blum really cares about the plight of Asian-Americans as they face stereotypes and bias? Nope. Not at all.

The primary reason I wasn’t going to talk about the Harvard trial is that it’s unlikely to affect anyone who is currently in high school, even if they’re applying to Harvard. The case has already been plodding along for four years, and it will take several more for it to make it to the Supreme Court, where there may or may not be lasting consequences. When you’re trying to compose a great essay for your current application, you’re probably not too concerned about the applications beginning five or six years from now. The case is very interesting to legal scholars and people who work in college admissions, but not necessarily very interesting to high school students. So I haven’t written about it.

But then I saw this article in last Wednesday’s New York Times. It’s an interview with five first-year Harvard students talking about admissions in light of the lawsuit. The students that reveal that, even though they were accepted to Harvard and are currently students there—they still have a lot of anxieties over their status and how they got in. The student who is a “double legacy,” because both her parents went to Harvard, faces the perception that legacies aren’t actually qualified to get in, that she only got accepted because of her legacy status. At the same time, a student who comes from a low-income background and is on full financial aid worries that people think he only got in because he’s poor. Both the students with Asian backgrounds worked to not seem like “the typical Asian” on their applications. Despite all the talk about Holistic admissions, all of them seem to be sure that there’s one single “hook” that got them into Harvard, even if they don’t know what that hook is.

The interview article really hit me. If there’s any discussion about fairness in admissions, even discussions that won’t be decided for years or decades to come, of course they affect people in high school now. Of course many people who come from privileged backgrounds will worry about how that privilege is perceived, and of course many students from less privileged backgrounds will worry about how that background is perceived. And to have debates about privilege and fairness as part of the daily national news can only make the pressure more intense. I feel silly for thinking it had nothing to do with current students.

So here’s, finally, what I want to say about the Harvard trial to current high school students. In the spring, I like to remind students that if they didn’t get into their top-choice school, or even fifth-choice school, the place they’re going still has what they’re looking for. If you want prestige and accolades, if you want strong social bonds and life-long friends, if you want knowledge and connections to help you begin your career, if you want to explore your interests and figure out who you really are—you can do those things at any university, not just the “elite” ones.

But the inverse is also true. Even if you do get accepted to your top-choice school, that won’t erase your anxieties and vulnerabilities. Those are personal and a part of you, wherever you are next year. Working hard to be accepted to the school of your choice is a good thing; working hard to understand yourself and address your fears and self-destructive habits is a good thing. But they’re not the same thing.

If you’re worried about how your race, ethnicity, wealth, or social background might affect your college applications, you’re not alone. But understand that getting everything you want may do nothing to alleviate those worries. They may, for a time, make it worse.

It’s not a particular college that is going to make you happy or unhappy. Whichever college you go to will have its own way of enhancing some happiness and also enhancing some unhappiness. You’ve got to do that work, for yourself. And you don’t have to wait until college to get started.

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 Photo by Angela Elisabeth Portraits

Photo by Angela Elisabeth Portraits