By Chungsok Lee
The author graduated from Harvard University with a Ph.D. degree in physics and currently runs a college admission consulting company, Ivy Dream.
In a landmark ruling last year, the Supreme Court has effectively banned affirmative action policies in college admissions. It was a significant moment for Asian American students who were at the center of this heated debate. The decision will begin a new era in higher education, leading to potential benefits and significant challenges.
Leading to the decision, there has been a long debate on affirmative action about fairness, diversity, and the true meaning of merit in college admission for years. Among the groups most profoundly affected have undoubtedly been Asian American communities, where the majority of Asian students and parents have felt that college admission had been biased against them in the name of diversity.
The complex spectrum of the Asian American community, rich in diverse ethnicities with unique American narratives, adds a layer of complexity to this issue. The end of affirmative action is not a straightforward celebration for all Asian American students. Given this community’s diversity, gains for some may mean losses for others, particularly those who have benefited from affirmative action’s commitment to diversity.
The Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t exist in isolation; it intersects with other factors of the admissions process. Concerns about implicit biases in subjective application components, like personal essays and interviews, will continue to exist. Moreover, practices such as legacy admissions and athlete preferences, which often disproportionately favor white students, persist and are not going away anytime soon. Consequently, eliminating race as an admission criterion doesn’t necessarily solve the complex web of systemic advantages and disadvantages.
After the ruling, most colleges, including Harvard, reemphasized their dedication to campus diversity. Colleges underscore the value of a diverse student body in enhancing educational experiences and preparing graduates for a multicultural world. However, they now face the challenge of fostering diversity within the confines of the new law, possibly requiring innovative strategies and a reassessment of admission practices.
One significant shift in this direction has been the increasing adoption of SAT-optional policies and the decreased emphasis on standardized tests, an area where Asian American students typically excel. This shift towards a more holistic review process aims to evaluate students on broader standards beyond test scores, creating a more diverse and inclusive student body.
The University of California (UC) system’s experience post-Proposition 209 offers a glimpse into the potential aftermath of affirmative action. After Proposition 209, which banned UC from considering race in admissions, there was a notable decline in the enrollment of underrepresented minority groups, especially at more selective campuses like UCLA and UC Berkeley.
For instance, at UCLA, the proportion of Black students in the freshman class dropped from 7.13% in 1995 to 3.43% in 1998, and Latino students decreased from 21.58% to 10.45% over the same period. Will a similar drop occur nationally now? I don’t believe it will be as dramatic, but there will be a noticeable drop, which should give rise to more Asian students enrolled in colleges this fall.
Looking ahead, Asian American students are entering an increasingly competitive admissions landscape that values holistic evaluations. This shift places a premium on academic prowess, extracurricular involvement, and compelling personal narratives, urging students to present themselves as accomplished individuals with unique experiences and talents. This new higher education chapter poses both hurdles and opportunities for Asian American students as they strive for academic distinction and personal development.
For Asian American students, the post-affirmative action era calls for a strategic reevaluation of their approach to college applications. Emphasizing individual stories, academic rigor, and extracurricular engagement is now more critical than ever. As a college consultant, I ask students to articulate their unique stories and talents more effectively.
Asian American students now face a college admissions environment where personal stories, academic excellence, and a well-rounded profile are vital in securing places in institutions that prioritize diversity. While presenting challenges, this new era also offers unique opportunities for strategic planning, self-discovery, and celebrating diverse individual identities.