An Asian-American’s Perspective On Affirmative Action In College


With the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in college admissions imminent, I thought it would be fascinating to see what artificial intelligence (using ChatGPT) thinks about the topic. This way, we can hopefully get a more balanced perspective about affirmative action.

After ChatGPT shares its insights on the pros and cons of affirmative action in college admissions, I’ll share my thoughts. As an Asian-American debating on whether or not to pay private grade school tuition for thirteen years for each child, this Supreme Court decision has large financial ramifications.

Can you imagine paying $500,000 for thirteen years of private grade school tuition only for your child to go to Penn State instead of U Penn? No offense to Penn State students and graduates as it’s a fine university. This was just a headline I read on my Bloomberg terminal back in the 2000s. It has stuck with me ever since given I think about financial returns.

As a public high school and public college graduate, my preference is for public schools. Public schools are where kids interact with a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds. There are also more student conflicts and fights in public schools, which may help toughen a kid up. Finally, it’s free, which means a much lower risk of disappointment for getting into college.

Alas, in our household at least, it takes two to decide on where to send your kids to school.

Arguments For Affirmative Action In College Admissions

Affirmative action in college admissions refers to policies and practices that aim to increase the representation of historically marginalized groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities, women, and individuals from low-income backgrounds. Affirmative action in this Supreme Case is also referred to as “race-conscious admissions.”

Supporters of affirmative action argue for its implementation based on several key arguments:

1) Promoting Diversity

Affirmative action is seen as a means to promote diversity and ensure that college campuses reflect the broader demographic composition of society.

It recognizes that diversity in race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and life experiences enhances the educational environment by exposing students to different perspectives. Affirmative action fosters cross-cultural understanding and prepares students for a diverse workforce.

2) Addressing Historical Disadvantages

Proponents argue that affirmative action is a way to address historical disadvantages and systemic inequalities faced by certain groups. It acknowledges that these groups have been historically underrepresented and provides them with opportunities they might not have had otherwise.

By taking into account an applicant’s background, affirmative action seeks to rectify past and ongoing discrimination and level the playing field.

3) Ensuring Equal Opportunity

Supporters of affirmative action contend that it helps ensure equal opportunity by considering the broader context in which individuals have achieved their qualifications. Recognizing that not all applicants start from the same baseline, it aims to mitigate the effects of socioeconomic disparities, unequal access to quality education, and other barriers that can limit opportunities for marginalized groups.

4) Enhancing Educational Benefits

Affirmative action advocates argue that diverse student bodies lead to enhanced educational experiences. Interacting with individuals from different backgrounds can broaden perspectives, challenge preconceived notions, and promote critical thinking and cultural competency.

It prepares students to navigate an increasingly diverse society and workforce, fostering skills that are essential for success in the globalized world.

5) Promoting Social Mobility

Affirmative action is seen as a mechanism to promote upward social mobility by providing opportunities for individuals who may not have otherwise gained access to higher education.

By increasing the representation of historically disadvantaged groups in colleges and universities, it can lead to greater economic and social mobility for individuals and their communities, breaking cycles of generational poverty.

6) Meeting Legal and Moral Obligations

Supporters argue that affirmative action is a way for institutions to meet legal and moral obligations to promote equity and fairness. It aligns with principles of equal protection and non-discrimination, as outlined in civil rights legislation. Additionally, it reflects a commitment to rectifying past injustices and fostering a more inclusive society.

Arguments Against Affirmative Action In College Admissions

Arguments against affirmative action in college admissions are often based on concerns about fairness, meritocracy, and potential unintended consequences. Here are some common arguments made by critics of affirmative action:

1) Reverse Discrimination

Critics argue that affirmative action can result in reverse discrimination, where qualified individuals from non-preferred groups are overlooked or disadvantaged solely based on their race, ethnicity, or gender. They argue that decisions should be made solely on merit and qualifications, without considering factors such as race or ethnicity.

2) Undermining Meritocracy

Opponents contend that affirmative action undermines the principle of meritocracy, which suggests that admissions decisions should be based solely on an individual’s abilities, achievements, and qualifications.

They argue that affirmative action can lead to less qualified candidates being admitted over more qualified candidates, which they see as unfair and detrimental to academic standards.

3) Stereotype Threat

Some argue that affirmative action can inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes by suggesting that certain groups need special treatment or lower standards to succeed. This, in turn, may create a sense of doubt and pressure on individuals from underrepresented groups, potentially affecting their confidence and performance.

4) Disadvantages Non-Underrepresented Groups

Critics argue that affirmative action can create disadvantages for individuals from non-underrepresented groups, particularly white and Asian American applicants. They contend that these individuals may face increased competition and reduced chances of admission due to affirmative action policies.

5) Lack of Individual Assessment

Critics express concern that affirmative action policies rely heavily on group-based characteristics, such as race or ethnicity, rather than individual qualifications and achievements. They argue that this approach can overlook or diminish the unique talents, skills, and experiences of applicants within these groups.

6) Unintended Consequences

Opponents of affirmative action caution that such policies may not always achieve their desired goals. They argue that affirmative action can lead to mismatching, where students who are admitted with lower qualifications struggle to succeed academically. This can potentially result in higher dropout rates and reduced graduation rates among underrepresented students.

7) Perpetuating Division

Some argue that affirmative action can perpetuate divisions and racial tensions by emphasizing group identities and differences rather than promoting a color-blind society. Critics contend that focusing on race and ethnicity in admissions can impede efforts to create a more inclusive and harmonious society.

Alternative Approach To Affirmative Action In College Admissions

Critics of affirmative action suggest that alternative approaches, such as socio-economic-based admissions, can address socioeconomic disadvantages without relying on race or ethnicity as a determining factor.

They argue that considering socioeconomic status can capture a broader range of disadvantages and promote diversity without directly factoring in race or ethnicity.

My Thoughts On Affirmative Action When I Was A Student

As someone who came to America as a high school freshman in 1991, I felt I had no say about affirmative action in college admissions. I had not suffered or benefitted from my race given I grew up in Zambia, The Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

I understood my parents were middle-class given they worked for the United States State Department. We lived in a modest townhouse and drove an eight-year-old Toyota Camry. The Camry was actually an upgrade from the paintless 1976 Datsun we drove in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I mainly wanted to go to a public university because it was cheaper. It seemed absurd to spend $20,000+ on tuition when we could spend $2,800 a year. I was earning $4/hour working at McDonald’s, so I had perspective! I also knew how much my parents made as government employees.

Virginia had UVA, William & Mary, Mary Washington, James Madison, George Mason, and Virginia Tech. Based on the college rankings at the time, these were good-enough schools to attend, especially for the cost.

I was neither gifted academically nor athletically to get into a top 20 private college, so I didn’t bother applying. Private college tuition was too much to bear for our household.

Didn’t Think About My Race

As I learned more about slavery and other historical injustices against Blacks and other minorities in America, I became a proponent of affirmative action, which began in the 1960s. Who wouldn’t want to help right historical wrongs that disadvantaged generations over time? If we have the opportunity to help, we must.

Even though I was waitlisted from a couple of colleges, I never felt like race was a deciding factor. I felt like my mediocre SAT test score and 3.68 GPA simply weren’t good enough to get in. My essays probably didn’t sound very natural either since I used a lot of SAT vocabulary words! Oh the irony.

I never felt some undeserving kid got into a better school than me due to their race. Instead, I was just thankful I got into The College of William & Mary!

Yes, I experience racism in Virginia during high school and college. Each incident was an eye-opening experience that lit a fire in me to achieve financial independence ASAP. I wanted to be beholden to no one!

My Thoughts On Affirmative Action As A Father

Now that thirty years have passed since I first applied to college, I wonder how long affirmative action in college admissions should continue. While I still believe society should still take action to right historical wrongs, to what degree is the dilemma?

When I see Asian-Americans with 1,500+ SAT scores and 4.0+ GPAs regularly get rejected by top 20 universities, I feel like my children have no hope in getting into a top university. I don’t want them to try really hard during grade school only to be told they aren’t good enough because of their race.

We know that some private universities game the system by accepting wealthy underrepresented minorities from outside the U.S. to help fulfill diversity requirements. That’s not right since we’re trying to help Americans who were screwed over in the past.

We also know there is a large difference in SAT scores by race for accepted students at top private universities. Perhaps because of this, there’s been a greater push to ban SAT scores in college admissions. This way, colleges have even more leeway in who they get to accept while potentially facing fewer discrimination lawsuits.

SAT scores for admission by race

A Better Type Of Affirmative Action

Today, I feel that affirmative action based on wealth and whether one has a disability seems like a fairer solution.

If you are poor, you may not have the same family support and resources to do well in school.

I did not grow up poor, but I still had to go to the library or Barnes & Noble and flip through SAT preparation books. I thought I was learning how to be a better test taker. But in reality I was fooling myself by just skimming the surface. My rich classmates, on the other hand, had parents who sent them to $2,500 Princeton Review SAT courses. Of course they ended up scoring better than me.

Fight For Those With Disabilities

If you have a visual impairment, you may have a more difficult time seeing the chalkboard in class. The questions on an exam may also be harder to read. As a result, you might zone off or just pretend you can see just to fit in as a teenager. At the very least, you may need more time on your exams. Without proper accommodations over the years, you may fall behind your peers who get to learn in full 20/20 vision.

If you were born with a disability that makes it more difficult or impossible to see, hear, move, process, socialize, and understand, competing will likely be more difficult. Roughly 15% of the world’s population has some level of disability, and it affects people of all races. This is the minority we should be fighting for the most.

60 years after affirmative action was introduced, I’d prefer to see economically disadvantaged kids and kids with disabilities from all races get more help instead.

Financial Samurai For All

When I write my articles on Financial Samurai, I’m not thinking about the race of the reader. I’m thinking about the financial question or problem the reader has. I’m also conscious about people with visual impairments, which is why I’ve increased the font size from the past and am recording more podcasts (Apple) to provide more accessibility.

All the content on Financial Samurai is already free, including my weekly newsletter. I’ve already got my “endowment” with our investments generating passive income, so charging a fee to access my content doesn’t feel right.

I don’t want anybody to be excluded from learning about personal finance if they want to.

Affirmative Action For Legacy Students

Top universities are doing away with SAT/ACT scores before doing away with legacy admissions. That’s a telling sign.

Take a look at the admit rates for ALDC students (recruited athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff). It is way higher than non-ALDC students by a factor of six to twelve.

Therefore, one could argue elite private universities are really supporting affirmative action for white students, given over ~43% of ALDC applications are white. Change is hard, even for the very universities that are trying to diversify.

How To Help Your Kids If They Are Negatively Affected By Affirmative Action

The ultimate goal of affirmative action is to provide upward mobility for historically disadvantaged people. After generations of discrimination, the compounding effects of discrimination can be extremely detrimental.

Unfortunately, affirmative action in college admissions is often perceived as a zero-sum game. There are only a certain number of spots and the number of spots have not grown commensurately with the rise in demand.

My children will unlikely benefit from affirmative action. As a result, I’ve decided to accept the situation for what it is. Instead of complaining about why life isn’t fair, I’ve decided to control what I can control.

Here are some things we parents can do:

  • Have a harmonious relationship with our significant others to provide more love and support at home
  • Teach them a second language to provide them with more opportunities if the English world shuts them out
  • Encourage them to try harder and build grit because effort is what they can control
  • Teach kids to love who they are to help build their self-esteem

Spending more time educating our own children is the biggest win. We shouldn’t outsource all of our children’s education to schools.

If my kids succeed without the help of affirmative action, they will gain tremendous self-esteem. If my kids get rejected everywhere despite being good students, then at least they’ll understand that’s just the way things are in society. The opportunity to overcome obstacles is part of life.

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Where You Go To College Isn’t Going To Make Or Break You

Where you go to college matters. But whether you go to an accredited four-year college or not matters way more. Either go to a trade school or go to a reputable college that is affordable. The more affordable education you can get, generally the better.

Most of us aren’t attending one of the top 25 private college in the nation. Therefore, affirmative action probably has little-to-no effect on the majority. The University of California, the largest college system, did away with affirmative action in 1996. Plenty of other public colleges have as well.

lifetime earnings of high school graduate versus college graduates

I’ve already written how unimpressive the median income is for Ivy League graduates. You would think attending a top 0.35% school would at least result in a top 10% median income for its graduates. But this is not the case.

As a result, don’t worry if you didn’t attend a top college. Instead, focus on being a hard worker, a good communicator, and someone who is always willing to help others.

It’s hard not to get ahead if you consistently do these things. Eventually, something good will happen if you stick things through long enough.

Reader Questions And Suggestions

Do you think affirmative action should be eliminated in college admissions? Why or why not? If affirmative action in college admissions disappears, how else can we help those who’ve been historically wronged?

Here is a good debate about whether affirmative action is unfair to Asian Americans. The entire Open To Debate podcast is great and worth listening to.

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