You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Conservative Misdirection of the Affirmative Action Debate

The battle over Ivy League admissions focuses on a handful of elite schools and ignores deeper educational inequalities exacerbated by Covid-19.

Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Last week, concluding a two-year investigation into the university’s admissions process, the Justice Department accused Yale of discriminating against white and Asian American applicants in order to manipulate the demographics of its student body. “There is no such thing as a nice form of race discrimination,” Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, said in a statement announcing the move. “Unlawfully dividing Americans into racial and ethnic blocs fosters stereotypes, bitterness and division.”

It was the Trump administration’s latest assault on affirmative action and another step on the path first started by conservative activists toward an eventual Supreme Court case over the issue. This is the second time in the last few years that the Ivy League has come under scrutiny for its admissions practices regarding race: Just last year, a federal court dismissed a high-profile lawsuit against Harvard over its admissions, which alleged that the university had discriminated against Asian applicants, and the plaintiffs are now appealing the ruling.

Though the affirmative action wars stretch back decades and have bubbled up in the past within the University of California and University of Texas systems, the more recent Ivy League cases represent a watershed in the fight. Most notably, in both instances, Asian American students and parents—rather than white families—have been central actors, complicating the conception of opposition to affirmative action as an expression of white grievance. The Harvard lawsuit, led by anti-affirmative action activist and attorney Edward Blum and his group Students for Fair Admissions, was filed on behalf of several Asian American students; the Yale investigation followed a complaint lodged by a group called the Asian American Coalition for Education.

As journalist Jay Caspian Kang noted last year in The New York Times Magazine, Asian American progressives have often found it difficult to reconcile their own ideological support for affirmative action with the overwhelming evidence that elite schools are trying to keep the number of Asians—already technically overrepresented on many campuses—from exceeding a certain threshold. (“Look, I support Harvard’s right to pursue the diversity they want,” one source told Kang, “but of course they discriminate against Asian kids.”) Because some of the Asian families decrying such practices have made common cause with political conservatives pushing for the end of affirmative action nationwide, liberals have tended to view them with a mix of consternation and embarrassment, often characterizing them as “entitled” (as one professor put it to The New Yorker) or even racist. Some commentators have subsequently treated the admissions battle as a kind of metaphor for America’s racial hierarchy in which Asians enjoy a certain proximity to whiteness and are now seeking to entrench that advantage within the Ivy League system.

Yet these battles ultimately reveal less about Asians as a group, or even about race in the United States, than they do the peculiar nature of “opportunity” and education at this moment. The warring over the racial makeup of the Ivy League—regardless of one’s perspective on what that makeup should be or how the schools in question should achieve it—is a conflict that by definition focuses on a handful of hyper-elite institutions to the exclusion of larger educational and economic crises. Foremost among those is the fact that the soaring cost of college in the U.S. has generated $1.6 trillion of student debt and jeopardized the financial solvency of even middle-class households. The same economy that now demands a college degree no longer even rewards it; wages have been stagnant since the end of the 1970s for the majority of workers, including those with college degrees. Colleges themselves haven’t fared much better: According to an analysis released earlier this month by the Columbia Teachers College publication The Hechinger Report, more than 500 colleges nationwide showed signs of financial distress, including declining enrollment and revenue, prior to the pandemic.

In the grand scheme of higher education, then, fixating on admissions at the most elite institutions is a classic case of rearranging chairs on a fast-sinking ship. And particularly as the U.S. struggles to control a pandemic and revive the economy, higher education is inching closer to a state of emergency. The ongoing imbroglio over whether to open campuses (or conduct the fall semester remotely while continuing to charge full tuition) reached a boiling point earlier this week when UNC-Chapel Hill, which had resumed in-person classes earlier this month, was forced to abruptly close its campus after around 130 students tested positive for Covid-19 in the first week of school. “We all saw this coming,” the editors of the UNC-Chapel Hill student newspaper wrote.

The pandemic and the economic downturn will likely also have longer-reaching consequences that exacerbate existing educational disparities, including retention and graduation rates for Black and Latinx students. As Inside Higher Education’s Paul Fain wrote in June, several polls have shown that as a result of the chaos around colleges reopening or trying to shift to remote learning, an overwhelming majority of students are now worried about graduating on time and gaining sufficient skills or work experience to find a job after college. “That impact has been felt most profoundly by students of color,” Fain wrote. “And some initial data suggest that lower-income students and those from minority groups may leave higher education, perhaps permanently.” The collapse of states’ revenue—with Senate Republicans continuing to block federal aid—is also taking a serious toll on the state schools and community colleges that rely on that funding; Maryland, for example, has already cut close to $190 million in funding to higher education, and the University of Texas system expects to lose around $77 million.

In other words, the uneasy truth is that the admissions process at Yale—an institution where the median family income of students is $192,600, or more than three times the median household income nationwide—is a kind of elite culture war that’s unlikely to yield any kind of satisfying outcome, especially in this moment. Conservatives naturally have their knives out, and the temptation, at least among the left-leaning, may be to defend universities’ efforts to ensure diversity among their student bodies. Yet entering that fight means risking overlooking the fact that far more Black, Latinx, and Asian students attend the public universities and state schools that now face severe budget shortfalls.

Attempts to recalibrate Ivy League admissions, no matter what kind of criteria takes precedence, give short shrift to more widespread educational inequalities. “Even if every spot in the Ivy League were filled by an exceptional student from a low-income family, a mere 60,000 or so American undergraduates would see their fortunes rise,” The New York Times’s Ginia Bellafante wrote last year. “Something like six million others would be left struggling in underfunded community colleges with typically poor rates of graduation.” That’s especially significant given that community college enrollment tends to increase during recessions. What better time than a national higher education crisis to finally shift the focus from the top to the rest?