College Admissions: The Intersection of Race, Education & Politics in America

College Admissions: The Intersection of Race, Education & Politics in America


The college of my choice.

We all have our thoughts about affirmative action, legacy, SAT scores, GPA, etc. And being in school is hard enough, but applying to school while being in school is on another level. That makes junior and senior year of high school probably the toughest years, apart from freshman year when you’re just trying to acclimate to a new environment and new people. I was an IB student at a magnet school in south florida, and on top of studying for our IB exams and AP exams and writing our extended essays, we were under the duress of applying to multiple colleges. There is no guarantee you’ll be accepted anywhere, and that is the scariest part.  Honestly, my dream school was Stanford, but I did not want to graduate with loans. When I was applying for FAFSA (financial aid), one of the representatives told me over the phone I was not going to qualify because I did not come from a poor household, so I was going to have to take out loans. So I only applied to UF. I qualified for the highest tier of the Florida Bright Futures Program, which pays for the student’s tuition granted the student fulfills the criteria for GPA and SAT scores. My parents had also paid into a college fund for me since I was in kindergarten and had locked in the price of tuition at the price it was when I was in kindergarten. So I graduated from UF not with loans, but with $10,000 in excess funds from having saved everything I had made from summer jobs, financial gifts from family, etc., over the course of those four years.

I remember when I applied to college and I came across so many inconsistencies in the application process, even practices that seemed completely unethical to me but which had persisted for so long that, though they were unnecessary and unfair, they were considered ‘tradition,’ and so went unchallenged. For instance, the fact that schools give priority to students based on ‘legacy’ was something that seemed ridiculous to me. Should not each student be judged based on their individual record and not their parents’ or grandparents’ record? If you are giving priority to a student based on an achievement their parents made, are you not giving away an acceptance that has been unearned by that student? And are you not making that student feel entitled to something that should not be theirs because they do not actually deserve it? And are you also not telling students who do not have legacy that they have less of a right to attend that school than students whose parents attended? That’s pretty cold and unwelcoming, especially for kids who are working so hard to be accepted to their dream schools and who also are paying out of pocket to even apply to these colleges. That’s another reason I did not apply anywhere other than UF. I was rebelling against this horribly unfair admissions process and student loan crisis. Despite the fact that I did not have legacy, I would not have had to graduate with loans and it was the best quality education for my family’s and my money.

The tradition of legacy also works against minorities and middle / lower class white students in that these are the students whose prior generations had the least likely chance of being admitted to school. They were most likely either discriminated against or could not afford to go. Legacy benefits, dare I say it, the richest (white?) Americans who have had generations before them establish wealth and privilege in this country, and that not only makes life easier on them when they’re in school and applying to school, but it gives students whose families that have not had the chance to do this or who were discriminated from doing it an unfair disadvantage. For students from families with parents and grandparents who did not have the funds to attend college, had parents whose mentality it was that they should not attend college, and who had generations before them discriminated against because of their race or religion when applying to college, those people are double discriminated against when competing against students with legacy and affirmative action.

And that’s just it – it’s a competition, and for anyone to have an unfair advantage over anyone else is unethical, especially when students and their families are working so hard for that student to have the opportunity to attend the best school they possibly can. I am white, but I come from generations of poor European immigrants who came to this country through Ellis Island and from Canada. They did not have the resources to attend these prestigious schools and also had not been in the country long enough to establish generational wealth that many other families have been able to establish. Other families, including rich white southern families who profited from the labor of African slaves, have done so and they could afford these pricy, famous schools.

Also, students from rich, white families probably benefit from legacy because the family had the wealth, from African slave labor or not, to attend these prestigious schools for generations. Plus these families can pay for their kids’ tuition of out pocket and still have money left over instead of their children going into debt. Therefore, rich white families seemingly have the best college application experience while poor/middle class white families have the worst. In addition to not having legacy because prior generations could not afford college or were not able to attend, poor/middle class white families (which make up the majority of the country) also do not have affirmative action working on their behalf either. And further, they will have to go into debt paying for pricey schools. So not only is middle class white America discriminated against when applying, but they become feudal workers when they graduate. The college admissions process therefore works against the majority of American families, including Asian American families, which it discriminates against even more than white families. Asian Americans have already faced great discrimination, especially during World War 2 in the time of the Japanese Internment Camps. That is a disgrace.

Pertaining to affirmative action, I have had many conversations with other people about it, and most of those conversations I have had were with black people. In college I once asked a black student how she felt about affirmative action and whether she thought it was unfair, and she said ‘well it works for me’ and shrugged her shoulders. This is America, a country of people who only care about themselves and not their community and who do not care if they are stepping on someone else to get what they want, even when they deserve it less than someone else. That is the way she made me feel. It was as if the hard work of students competing against her did not matter, and that seemed disrespectful. Many people have pointed out to me that affirmative action helps white women like myself more than it does anyone else, but no one has ever shown me proof of this and I just find it so hard to believe. I graduated from high school with a 3.9 GPA with my IB Diploma, a 2100+ SAT score, a Gold Congressional Award, 100+ hours of community service, the President’s Student Service Award, the National Honor Society, played varsity golf and junior varsity soccer, and I was the President of my own school club called Finding A Cure. I doubt that I had any kind of affirmative action to help get me into college, and to even suggest that I did is insulting to me. I worked extremely hard. And that was why, when I was applying to college and had to compete against legacy and affirmative action working on behalf of other students, I had only my merits to get me accepted and had an unfair disadvantage compared to other students, and that’s not right.

Now, finances and family culture do matter. I came from a middle /upper middle class white family, both my parents are college educated, and I grew up in a financially and emotionally stable home, though my parents did start out as poor carpet dyers in Van Nuys, CA. They eventually went to college at CalState Northridge and earned their degrees. I had good parents who tried to give me every opportunity to succeed, put me in a private middle school, drove me to all my extracurricular events, helped me with my homework at night, and filled my head with positive thoughts about myself and about life. So I had stable roots from which to grow, and I know that there are students out there who grow up without these resources, and for them, I was the one with an unfair advantage, and I understand and respect that.

However, to mark off your race on a college application in some box and immediately get a higher priority than someone else is short-sighted and a terrible way to distinguish students. If you want to bring diverse ideas and perspectives to your new college freshman class and create an atmosphere of respect and fairness, then let everyone earn their place on their own merit. They will be more respected for it. If students want to talk about how they have overcome personal obstacles, including racism and violence, then let them freely express that in their essays. This gives them a fair opportunity to earn their place in the class instead of being considered a statistic and given an immediate bump compared to other students who probably have stories that are just as meaningful and have overcome obstacles just as difficult, but just different.

For example, I have had a hearing impairment my entire life, and now I have tinnitus, that I have had to overcome and it has been very difficult for me, but I persevered and excelled. I have never been able to hear very well and have made sure to always sit in the front of the class, ask questions about what I did not understand or hear, and do everything I could to succeed. I was incredibly motivated and it paid off. I may not have had to face the same obstacles as students who are a different color than I am, but they also have not had to face mine either. Everyone has a different story, and life is relative. To tell one student their story is not as compelling as a student’s from a different background, and that their obstacles were not as hard to overcome just because they did not have the same experiences, is to discriminate and disrespect the other student’s life and story. How can anyone tell me that my achievements in life are somehow less than someone who is a different color than I am? We all experience adversity in one way or another, either intellectually, socially, biologically, financially, mentally and emotionally, and to water us down by our race, gender, and age by treating us like statistics, a check mark in a box and a quota/percentage of your incoming class, is derogatory and insulting to our intricate and dynamic human nature, unique individuality and diverse life experiences.

I recently read an article where someone wrote about how affirmative action should not be a way to diversify an incoming class but a way to give reparations to minorities for the generational discrimination applied against their families. I understand the logic behind this, but history cannot be changed, and to punish the current generation for a former generation’s mistakes is unfair. Further, to give limited resources to people who did not earn those resources not only discriminates against people who are more deserving of them, but breeds the mentality that people who do not deserve these resources are owed / entitled to something which they did not earn from people who did them no wrong. It also makes them believe they are on the same intellectual level of their peers, and if they were given priority for anything other than their hard work and their merit, they are probably not on the same level of intellectualism. And at that point, the school’s reasoning is that their presence brings diversity, if not intellectualism, but we all have different stories and have overcome different obstacles to get where we are. So to justify the presence of someone who did not fairly earn their place among their peers by saying that they have a diverse story is to discredit and disrespect the obstacles and stories of their colleagues by alleging they are not diverse and special enough by themselves.

To make another point, a while ago there was a story in the news about a black male student at UCLA who had complained to the school that there were not enough other black students for him to surround himself with and befriend, and therefore the school should relax its admissions standards and allow affirmative action. The school responded by apologizing to this student that there were not more students who matched his demographics. I found this strange, as schools seem to want to champion the idea of diversity, but when UCLA had the chance to express the importance of diversity in the college experience to this student and the fact it was an opportunity for him to expand his horizons by making friendships with others who were from different from him, they did not do this. Instead, they were apologetic that they could not fulfill his request, even though he was requesting that students be admitted on the basis of their ability to form friendships with him and not on their own merit. I found this ridiculous. This student not only wanted the school to change their admissions policy to admit people who did not deserve it, but he also wanted them to make it more convenient for him to discriminate as well, for the convenience of having like-minded peers from his background. It seemed very selfish and entitled, but I was even more disappointed with the school’s response, which was to coddle him instead of being honest that real life and work culture are not about being comfortable and that it’s unethical to exercise favoritism in college admissions. People work very hard to get admitted to school, and they go for the learning experience. It’s about the pursuit of a better future, and if that’s not why you’re going, you don’t belong there. If you want to make friends, that’s great. Make friends with the people around you, even if they are different from you. At least they earned their place there, and it’s probably good for you to meet people who are different from you. You may even like it, and even if you don’t, at least you’ll learn something that you did not know before about people who are different than you and you’ll learn how to socialize with people from diverse backgrounds. That is also part of the learning experience. It is important if you ever want to form relationships, both romantic or work partnerships, with people from different backgrounds than you. Further, it is just common sense and basic ethics that people be admitted based on their hard work and their potential to succeed, not for their ability to make friendships based on their racial background.

It is of course important to have compassion for a student from a background which has been systematically oppressed and discriminated from pursuing an education. But again, to use history as an excuse to give people what they did not earn themselves, especially when someone else deserves it more, is not the way to approach making reparations. It does not change history, and further, it misplaces talent. The entire point of going to a particular school is for the student to be able to grow and mature in such a way that their talents and potential are most efficiently developed so that when they graduate they are able to contribute to society at their fullest capacity. To deny students the chance to excel at their fullest potential at the most apt school for them because of historical scars done to someone else does not erase these scars and it denies society the matured, developed talent it needs to progress and thrive. Also, it seemed like this student who asked UCLA to admit other students just because of their racial background had no compassion for his fellow students who had worked so hard to be there as his peers, and I would have been hurt if I had been a fellow student of his.

Further, to even have boxes for people to check off their race, gender and age, even on job applications, encourages discrimination and the admission of people based on biographical information instead of merit. Allocation of resources should be distributed based on merit, and college admissions should be blind, without names, legacy, affirmative action, race, gender or age considered. I had one such English professor in high school who graded our essays blindly. She was a brilliant woman. We were to write our names on the backs of our essays so there was no basis for her to discriminate when she graded our papers (not that it was her intent, but she wanted to avoid even the subconscious favoritism that we know all teachers have deep down) and assigned us grades purely based on our effort on the assignments. She also had us type all of our assignments instead of turn in handwritten work because this would avoid the unnecessary confusion that many teachers face when trying to read handwriting. It would also help her avoid discriminating subconsciously according to handwriting if she recognized certain handwriting may have belonged to particular students. Smart. Grades were based on merit alone and this is now all professors and teachers should grade papers and how schools should admit students.

Further, schools should not even consider standardized tests. They too create an environment for discrimination. Students who are from the most privileged backgrounds have an unfair advantage over their peers because they can afford the expensive tutoring and test prep while other families, including middle and lower class white families, cannot. And so then the school’s logic is, because we discriminate against poor students on test scores, let’s discriminate against the remainder of the students based on race. (laughter). Why are they allowed to discriminate at all? How is that legal? To me, the families who benefit least from this fell in my bracket, which was white middle class families. They lose out on legacy because they do not have the generational wealth to have ever afforded these schools and/or they did not have the opportunity to apply or go in the first place. They do not have affirmative action working on their behalf either because they are not colored. And they also cannot afford the price tags of the most prestigious schools and they graduate in huge debt, so apart from not being accepted, they were discriminated against when applying in the first place. College admissions is therefore a lose-lose scenario for the majority of American families. It shouldn’t be and it doesn’t have to be. But the biggest losers of all are the American public, because the greatest intellect and potential in American youth is lost amongst the chaos of American politics and greed. And that is the clusterfuck of the United States college application process.

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