Affirmative action in admissions splits US

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/9 19:03:40

Zhao Yusi is famous now, but not in the way she might have expected. In 2017, after she was awarded a place by Stanford University, the jubilant teenager shared her experience in an online video with aspiring youngsters in China, telling them how an average student like herself got into one of the top universities in the world. "Getting in Stanford is not an unrealistic dream," she told the audience. "As long as you set your firm goal, and work hard toward it, you'll be there."

Now, she is facing public disgrace. The dream was shattered when Zhao was kicked out by Stanford after her parents were found involved in the biggest college admissions scandal in US history.

The scandal pivots around private college consultant William Rick Singer's bribing of key players from psychologists, test proctors to coaches of college sports teams. They wedged open the backdoors of top US universities for prospective students whose parents were willing to pay Singer. The students received medical proof that allowed them extra time on the SAT tests, had their test scores manipulated, or were admitted as outstanding athletes in sports in which they never participated.

Singer had boasted that he helped nearly 800 students get admitted in this way. So far, 50 people have been indicted, including 33 parents, some of whom are celebrities. Zhao, who was portrayed as a competitive sailor in her application, and her parents, who made their wealth in the pharmaceutical industry in China, were not among them. Her mother claimed that they didn't know the money they paid - $6.5 million, the largest amount exposed so far - was for bribery.

The scandal further raised the temperature of the debate about fairness in college admissions, triggered by a series of court cases and formal administrative complaints regarding the racially conscious admission policies at some Ivy League colleges. The Zhao family's involvement puts the spotlight on a complex issue that's largely been missed in the debate.

It was originally initiated by white students who thought the places they deserved were going instead to less qualified minority students so that the colleges could meet their diversity goals. Its racial scope shifted when Asian students and their parents began to protest about being denied places because of affirmative action in recent years, especially in one ongoing court case that puts Harvard University in the dock.

But the story is now no longer so much about race. When the scandal was first broken by the media in early May, even the Chinese language media in the US didn't suspect there were Chinese families involved. This kind of audacious game - highly expensive and network reliant - is traditionally reserved for elite white families.   

As it turned out, Zhao was not the only Chinese student involved in the scandal. The parents of Sherry Guo, another student from China, paid $1.2 million to get her into Yale University.

And in April, US media zoomed in on Jie Zhao, the CEO of iTalk Global Communications, who purchased a house from Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand for $1 million - more than double its market price. Zhao sold it 17 months later at a steep loss after his son was admitted to Harvard as a member of its fencing team.

Even before all these eye-popping stories surfaced, international students from China with deep pocketed parents have had an advantage over Chinese-American students from low income families who have to apply for financial assistance.  

Even the legacy program, a legitimate backdoor for children of alumni that was largely thought to be a privilege for white people, now sees more and more Asian beneficiaries.    

The increasing disparity in economic and social status means that the rich and poor in Asian society may not have common interests when it comes to issues like affirmative action.

Despite different cultures, the interests of children from Chinese working class families may be closer to those from Black working class families than those from rich Chinese families. And the latter may be more likely to find allies among elite white families. This is a phenomenon that didn't exist in the 1960s when affirmative action was picking up momentum. Race-based affirmative action served its purpose well back then. But now it's becoming dysfunctional.

Some educators and researchers have been calling for the replacement of race-based affirmative action with one based on socioeconomic status. Opponents rebuffed the idea, noting that it would make the campus whiter and therefore wouldn't create desired diversity.

If that's the case, then maybe a combination of race and socioeconomic status is the right formula. The bottom line is affirmative action, just like everything else, needs to be adjusted to keep pace with changes in society, especially given the 1.0 version that's solely based on race is so clearly obsolete.

The author is a New York-based journalist and Alicia Patterson fellow.


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