The Supreme Court will soon decide the fate of race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Its ruling will be of particular interest to my class — high school juniors who would be the first affected by a change in admissions policies.
Like many Asian American students, I believe the system as it stands makes it more difficult for me to gain acceptance to elite colleges. I would be lying if I said this didn’t bother me that admissions officers may hold me to a higher standard because of my race.
At the same time, I do want my eventual college class to be diverse. That’s why I hope the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action so colleges are forced to create a better system, one that promotes diversity by helping those who need it most.
Many Americans appear to agree with me. Last year, a Washington Post-Schar School survey showed that while more than six in 10 Americans opposed the use of race in college admissions, an equally strong majority favored efforts to create racially diverse classes. I was raised in a family that encourages academic achievement and attend an excellent public high school. It is right that my accomplishments be judged on a different scale from those of someone who does not have these advantages. Properly measuring a student’s achievement requires assessing the obstacles surmounted to attain it.
Our race-based system of preference, however, doesn’t seem to work this way. Underprivileged white and Asian American kids, including some living just a few miles from my house, do not benefit from affirmative action. How fair is a system that seems to give an affluent African American student an advantage over an underprivileged white or Asian American one, simply on the basis of skin color?
If the current policy is struck down, colleges seeking to maintain a diverse student body will be compelled to focus on socioeconomic status instead of race. Doing so can result in racial diversity, but in a fairer way.
At least nine states have already banned the use of race in college admissions policies, including California, Florida and Michigan. By focusing on socioeconomic factors, public universities where racial preferences were banned have been able to regain some measure of racial diversity.
A number of strategies helped bring about this result. Some universities guaranteed admission for top-ranked students in every high school in their state. Some allowed students to provide essays explaining circumstances, such as personal hardships or work and family obligations, that limited their school activities. Some increased recruitment at underrepresented schools and community colleges.
It may take time and effort to adopt these methods, but awarding preference to all disadvantaged students would result in a more defensible version of affirmative action.
Selective colleges should also reduce or do away with consideration of legacy and athletics. We know doing so could increase racial diversity. Both my parents attended a selective college that I intend to apply to. If I am accepted, I do not want my classmates to think it was because of legacy and not my own merit. This is the burden of legitimacy already shouldered by many underrepresented minorities on college campuses.
Just as I may be unfairly judged by admissions officers — either too harshly because I am Asian, or too favorably because I am a legacy student — African American and Hispanic students can be judged unfairly when classmates and teachers assume, because of current affirmative action policy, that they are less qualified to attend.
The practices the Supreme Court will rule on have heightened the anxiety of students and parents in a nation already obsessed with college admissions. This admissions mania leaves little room to discuss better solutions to problems. Replacing race-based affirmative action with class-based preferences would allow us to turn our attention to other valuable ideas.
What if, for example, colleges with huge endowments spent more of their resources supporting K-12 public school education and enrichment programs in cities across America? The city near my home, Springfield, Mass., has become the first in the state to offer free preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old. Investing in minority student education at a young age will help address the underlying disparities that gave rise to the current policies in the first place.
Though race-based affirmative action has had benefits, we have tried it for over 50 years and it has fallen short. We need to build something that is fairer and allows us to focus on economic inequality. I realize that what I’m suggesting could mean that I would lose a spot to an applicant who hasn’t had my advantages. But that’s better than losing out because of my race. The good news is that diversity as a goal is not at issue for most Americans. How we achieve it is open for rigorous debate.
Sophia Lam is a junior at Longmeadow High School in Longmeadow, Mass. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.