After her PSAT, Nicole Bahar ’18 marched directly to her dean’s office and burst through the door, not stopping to talk to friends or send a brief text to her parents letting them know she had finished. She was frustrated, confused and angry, she said, but not due to concerns about the test.
“On the PSAT, I remember I had checked off the box that said ‘white (of Middle Eastern descent),’” Bahar said. “It’s just not fair. I asked, ‘Why am I being generalized and put in a parenthetical?’ It was a mixture of feeling offended and also feeling like it’s unfair that I don’t get this advantage.”
Bahar said she was referring to the policy adopted by colleges known as Affirmative Action, a race-based selection process that aims to promote diversity and increase access to education for applicants of historically disadvantaged minorities, such as African, Latino and Native-Americans. The term “Affirmative Action” was coined by President John F. Kennedy in Executive Order 10925, which included a provision for the government’s “Affirmative Action” to guarantee fair employment without consideration of “race, creed, color or national origin.
Although the Supreme Court has prohibited the use of racial quotas, it has maintained the constitutionality of considering race as a factor in college admissions. In 2013, Fisher v. University of Texas challenged Affirmative Action policies as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, but the policies were upheld as constitutional.
“At the core, Affirmative Action is a way to make things more equitable, but beyond that it’s also a way to enrich the collegiate experience and ensure that people can mix and mingle and learn from one another,” Upper School Dean Celso Cardenas said. “A lot of the learning that you do in college is beyond the textbook, and I think Affirmative Action lends itself to that.”
Bahar said that she believes Persians should be included in those who benefit from Affirmative Action. In not providing the opportunity to differentiate her race from white students for standardized testing and college applications, colleges don’t seem to recognize the diversity of the student body that her culture could contribute to, she said.
“Persians 100 percent make colleges more diverse. I’ve done a little research, and within the United States, Persians are less than 1 percent of the population,” Bahar said. “By definition, we are one of the greatest minorities there are, so by not having our own racial category like ‘Middle Eastern,’ we are grouped with either white or Asian students. I don’t think it’s fair because a Middle Eastern individual brings a certain cultural diversity.”
On the other hand, some students, such as Oceania Eshraghi ’18, said they recognize how they could potentially benefit from Affirmative Action in the college admissions process as a member of a minority group.
“Because I’m Cuban and Persian, I’ve heard a lot about how my ethnicity allows me to check a lot of boxes and how I could use that to my advantage,” Eshraghi said. “My dean told me that that would be beneficial to be able to check as many boxes as I can. I check ‘white (of Middle Eastern descent),’ ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Afro-Caribbean’.”
Eshraghi said Affirmative Action also helps determine the aspects of her identity that she plans on highlighting in her college applications.
“I think it is a strategy in applications,” Eshraghi said. “I also think that my race is a big part of my life, and if I didn’t associate closely with my culture, I don’t know if I’d use it as much as I plan to. But for me, it’s not just a strategy but also just an honest way of presenting myself.”
Upper School Dean Jamie Chan said that emphasizing one’s culture on a college application can only be beneficial if the student has an honest connection to it.
“Admissions people are really good at seeing through kids playing certain things up,” Chan said. “When parents think they can game the system, they really can’t.”
While some students plan on highlighting their connection to their culture in the college process, Nick Witham ’17 said he chose to apply to colleges as a white male, despite the fact that he is half Chinese, because he was told that applying as an Asian male would place him within a more competitive pool of applicants.
“I feel like [applying as a white male] makes me just a generic case. I’m not a special case, and there are plenty of other people just like me —just like a normal guy,” Witham said. “I don’t have a hook, and I’m not a recruited athlete or anything. I’m just on a neutral playing field.”
Cardenas said, however, that the racial groups underrepresented on college campuses can vary regionally.
“We still have areas in the U.S. where certain demographics are very underrepresented in certain institutions. It all depends on who’s going to college,” Cardenas said. “The Asian community is not one of them but not necessarily all over the United States. There are still a lot of schools that actively recruit Asian students because they want them on their campus.”
Phillip* said that college admissions should be a process based entirely on merit.
“I think [Affirmative Action] is an absolute tragedy and violation of American values of equal protection under the law, and it’s a direct step back from a colorblind society because the state is sanctioning discrimination by skin color,” Phillip said. “Even though it’s benefiting most people of color, it doesn’t benefit all people of color. It’s two tiers of discrimination.”
On the other hand, Courtney Nunley ’17 said she believes Affirmative Action to be a fair compensation from institutions that historically have given an advantage to white males.
“I support Affirmative Action because I think it makes up for many years of schools not wanting to let in students of color,” Nunley said. “I get that’s not what’s going on right now, but it makes up for years of systemic oppression against people of color. It’s making up for wrongdoings in the past. Saying that I got into a college just because I’m black only invalidates everything else that I do.”
Out of 338 students polled, 60 percent said they believed Affirmative Action was necessary and fair, but only 20 percent said they felt personally benefited by the policy.
Although a student’s race is considered in the college admissions process, a common misconception is that students are accepted solely because of their race, Cardenas said.
“Affirmative Action was never about giving access to someone who doesn’t deserve it. Institutions don’t ever say, ‘Oh, here’s a Latino with a 2.3 GPA. Let’s take them.’ It’ll always be a qualified individual,” Cardenas said. “It’s to give that little piece of equity to people that are deserving of it. It’s never ever because of race.”
A merit-based college admissions process would create a system more unfair than the current one, Cardenas said.
“The greatest advantage in the college process is being able to afford college,” Cardenas said. “What we’re saying if we were to make it just on merit alone is that those people that have access to the best high schools and test prep are gonna be the one’s going to college, and all that does is take us back to back in the day when only those people had access to college.”
*Names have been changed.