Bian: The real problem with college admissions isn’t Affirmative Action; it’s legacies

Andrea Bian, Op-Ed Contributor

When I applied to Northwestern a year ago, I chose not to check the “Asian” box on the Common Application. I definitely wasn’t alone — most of my Asian-American peers and friends chose not to, either. As a high school senior, I was repeatedly told to not disclose my ethnicity anywhere on my application, as it would decrease my chances of admission.

It bothered me slightly that I couldn’t say anything on my application about my Chinese-American upbringing, because I felt it was a prominent part of my identity. But I complied, believing the notion that revealing my ethnicity would ultimately hurt me.

With Harvard University on trial for discriminating against Asian applicants, I have found myself thinking more and more about my strategy of getting into college and what it has made me believe about Asian discrimination.

I’ll admit it troubles me a little to hear that Harvard consistently ranks Asians lower on personality traits such as likability and kindness, as the lawsuit alleges. There is some merit to holding Harvard accountable for the specific way they evaluate Asian students based on racist stereotypes. But I support Affirmative Action. I understand why it exists. Without it, college campuses would be lacking in diversity of thought and backgrounds, and students who face numerous racial and socioeconomic challenges would be denied admission.

What troubles me more is that criticism of Affirmative Action encourages minorities to compete directly against each other. It perpetuates the idea that minorities should view each other as enemies. Specifically, it brings up the prospect that black and Latinx students are taking up spots that “belong” to Asian-Americans.

That makes me cringe. Even with Affirmative Action, black and Latinx students are extremely underrepresented in American universities. Affirmative Action is only a minor acknowledgment of the institutional racism and disadvantages that some students have to overcome just to be considered for a place at an elite college.

For a while, I was misguided when it came to Affirmative Action. I stewed in anger at the notion that I had to score higher on the SAT than my non-Asian friends. I truly believed that other minorities had it easier.

Not only is this untrue, but there’s a bigger problem with college admissions that doesn’t concern minorities at all — in fact, it almost exclusively applies to white people. And Harvard happens to be a prime example.

For the Harvard University classes of 2014 through 2019, the admit rate for legacies was 33.6 percent, more than five times the admit rate for non-legacies. Students without legacy status were admitted at an average rate of only 5.9 percent. Legacies at many elite colleges tend to be white. They are also typically wealthy due to at least one parent attending a top-ranked university. To admit a student based on legacy is to value the potential future donations they could make to the institution over their academic merit and personal achievements.

Other elite colleges have similar statistics: Princeton University admitted 33 percent of its legacy applicants in 2015 compared with an 8.5 percent overall admit rate. Yale University said it admitted 20 to 25 percent of legacies while admitting 6.7 percent overall in 2013.

I’m sure most legacies admitted to Harvard and other universities are qualified and deserve to receive admission. But the significantly high admit rate allows them to get in with easier standards. It can be translated as Affirmative Action for mostly white, wealthy people.

Legacy students should be held to higher rather than easier standards, specifically because they usually grew up with additional privileges. Admitting them because of family ties indicates a blatant prioritization of money and donations over what a student can bring to a campus’ community.

Affirmative Action is necessary to maintain a campus environment where students can interact with people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Legacy admissions are not.

I believe Northwestern and all colleges should disclose their legacy admissions rates, and that applicants should hold them responsible for these unfair admissions the same way they do Harvard.

Andrea Bian is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.