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Divided on affirmative action, Asians unite against personal scores

Asian Americans speak out about Harvard's ratings on courage and likability during the admissions process.
Divided on affirmative action, Asians unite against personal scores
Posted at 10:06 AM, Jul 07, 2023

At the trial of Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard before the United States Supreme Court in October, Justice Samuel Alito grilled Harvard's lawyer on the school's use of the "personal score." 

The trial revealed evidence that Asian applicants received lower personal scores during the admissions process. 

"The record shows that Asian student applicants get the lowest personal scores of any other group. What accounts for that?" Alito asked. 

"It has to be one of two things: that they really do lack integrity, courage, kindness and empathy to the same degree as students of other races; or there has to be something wrong with this personal score," Alito continued. 

As the Supreme Court last month held that race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions processes violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, overturning affirmative action, Asian Americans remain divided on the issue of whether race should be considered in admissions. But Asian Americans are for the most part united against Harvard University’s use of personal scores to rate candidates. 

“For most Asian Americans, including myself, affirmative action is a complicated issue,” said Cecilia Chan, 44, a Harvard University graduate and a stay-at-home mom with two children in New Jersey. She is a supporter of affirmative action. Yet she thinks that her alma mater's use of personal ratings is demeaning. 

“I recognize and respect the need for a more equitable system of higher education, but sometimes feel like that’s at cross purposes with what might be best for my children.”       

SEE MORE: Latest Supreme Court decisions specifically affecting Black Americans

Harvard consistently rated Asian American applicants lower than others on traits like “positive personality, likability, courage and being widely respected,” according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records presented in 2018 by Students for Fair Admissions representing Asian American students in the lawsuit against the university

Asian Americans scored higher than students of any other racial group on test scores, grades and extracurricular activities, according to the analysis. But the students’ personal ratings lessened their chances of being admitted, according to the analysis presented.  

Students for Fair Admissions says in its lawsuit that Harvard violates the Civil Rights Act that enables school to receive federal funding because Asian American applicants are less likely to be admitted than similarly qualified White, Black and Hispanic applicants.

The issue of race-based admissions that may help boost applicants of certain races is dividing the Asian American community. At the core of the division is the Supreme Court decision about racial discrimination in college admissions at Harvard University and at the University of North Carolina.

Harvard’s use of personal scores is disrespectful to Asian Americans, many who arrive to the country with little money, said Mike Zhao, 60, a Chinese immigrant leader of the Asian American Coalition for Education against affirmative action. Zhao, who lives in Orlando, Florida, says his son Hubert was rejected to two Ivy League universities he applied to despite stellar academics and extracurricular achievements.  He supports a holistic approach to admitting students to elite colleges, but called Harvard’s use of personal ratings “shameful.” 

“How can you say Asians are weak in leadership?” Zhao said. 

Zhao supports the lawsuits brought against Harvard and University of North Carolina by anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admission, started by conservative strategist Edward Blum. The cases will impact how colleges and universities can use race in admissions going forward and possibly lower the number of Black and Hispanic students at elite colleges.  

SEE MORE: Lawsuit: Harvard's legacy admissions puts minorities at disadvantage

Siding with Blum and the group has been a point of contention within the Asian American diaspora. Chan said she resents that Asian Americans are being used as a wedge between communities of color.

Amber Reed, 44, a mother of two who is a Columbia University graduate, supports the use of affirmative action in selective college admissions. She is angry about the portrayal of Asian Americans in Harvard’s use of personal scores, but thinks that can be addressed without changing the entire system.

“You don’t throw out the whole program,” said Reed, who is president of AAPI Montclair in New Jersey. “I don’t see how this decision will make it equitable for my children.” 

Kenny Xu, 25, a Chinese American author of “An Inconvenient Minority” based on Harvard and Asian American student applicants, believes that meritocracy should rule in college admissions. 

Xu lives in North Carolina and was rejected to Ivy League colleges, Princeton University and University of Pennsylvania, despite his near-perfect standardized test scores. 

“You want to be admitted based on your merit,” Xu said. That is what justice is about. Affirmative action treats people based on characteristics they can’t control.”

Ying Lu, a professor at New York University, thinks it’s a misconception that Asian Americans are scapegoats in college admissions. 

“The bias and stereotypes against Asian Americans in education had always existed, and they certainly will not go away without affirmative action,” she said. “When Asian American students were rated lower on positive personality by the admissions office. They were suffering from racial bias. Dismantling affirmative action isn’t going to bring any meaningful change in racialized stereotypes.”             

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