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Mitchell J. Chang

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Is Harvard Worth All the Fuss?

Posted: 05/23/11 05:02 PM ET

A recent article by Jon Marcus in the Boston Globe reported that Harvard rejected almost 94 percent of those who applied for undergraduate admissions in fall 2011. Even though the acceptance rate of 6.2 percent is a record low, some suspect that the rate for Asian Americans is even lower. According to Marcus, Asian American applicants must have stronger high school records and test scores than applicants from other groups in order to gain admissions to Harvard and other elite colleges. Critics charge that through the admissions process, those institutions discriminate against Asian Americans.

Perhaps history is repeating itself. Similar charges were made against Harvard in the late 1980s, but the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) cleared the university of discrimination. OCR concluded that the lower admission rate for Asian applicants was due to plus factors, such as legacy and athletics, that tipped in favor of whites. These plus factors are not considered discriminatory because they are widely practiced in higher education and support legitimate institutional goals.

Given that the college admissions process is a moving target, shaped more by sociopolitical forces than by meritocratic principles, is it once again time to fuss over admissions into Harvard?

If we were to do the math, we'd realize that unless Harvard doubles or triples the number of students admitted, the actual number of Asian American applicants who would gain admissions even under farfetched proportional increases is relatively small. After all, this year Harvard admitted only slightly over 2,000 of its more than 34,000 applicants. Even if half of the admitted students were Asian American, thousands more outstanding Asian American applicants would still be rejected.

Also, consider the forces that contribute to why admission into Harvard is so sought after. In an April 17th Chronicle of Higher Education article, Kevin Carey, policy director of the Washington think tank Education Sector, argued that the admissions process at elite institutions "is recursive and self-sustaining: Everybody wants to go where everybody else wants to go. It thrives in a vacuum of consumer information that might give everybody an irrefutable reason to go somewhere else."

There are over 2,300 four-year institutions of higher education in the U.S. and with so many to choose from, experts know that there is no shortage of "excellent" colleges. Unfortunately, the public has a very narrow view of what counts as an "excellent" college, often dictated by various national rankings, which artificially inflates the reputation of and rejection rates for a small set of institutions. By being among the most enthusiastic contributors to such market driven demands, as Asian Americans are already overrepresented at elite institutions, we help sustain an educational industry that thrives on exclusion.

Given the relatively small gains and the dynamics behind selective admissions, how might Asian Americans collectively respond to this admissions problem? I would recommend challenging what those elite institutions care most about -- resources and reputation. Consider staging a national boycott of those institutions by refusing either to apply to them or to further enhance their prestige.

Most likely, such a boycott is improbable because the lure of prestige is too seductive and applicants tend to overestimate their chances of being admitted. I know this well because in my eleven years of study in higher education at four different institutions, one stands out: my year at Harvard. Now, however, that year stands out not because it was the best educationally -- far from it -- but because I paid more for my one year of education there than I did for the other ten years combined.

So what are the alternatives to boycotting if doing nothing is not a viable option? Should Asian Americans expend valuable time and resources to challenge volatile and suspect admissions practices so that a few more can obtain degrees from elite colleges by displacing a few other extraordinary applicants? It seems to me that unless we do something different than what was done in the 1980s, we will continue to find ourselves in a race to nowhere, as the title of an educational documentary suggests. For me, it was also a race to the bottom of my bank account.