Welcome to campus, new and returning Devils. The beginning of a new semester is a fresh start—a time to set unrealistic goals about procrastination, food point budgeting and alcohol intake. Above all, it’s a time to look forward to your upcoming year at Duke.
Before you get caught up in the daily grind of classes, let’s take a moment to reflect on how you ended up here. Each year, college admissions get increasingly cutthroat. Students jump through more and more hoops, racking up hundreds of hours of community service, winning international competitions or casually achieving celebrity status. Good grades and SAT scores are no longer deciding factors—they’re the bare minimum. This creates thousands of competent, well-qualified applicants who could thrive at a number of institutions, but colleges can’t accept everyone.
As you’ve undoubtedly been told many, many times, you’re here because someone at Duke saw something special in you. You convinced the admissions committee that you have the potential to be successful.
But if we’re being really honest, other factors also mattered. Luck. Legacy.
In April, the Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on race-conscious college admissions, setting an important precedent for higher education. Michigan instated the policy in 2008, five years after the University of Michigan was sued for its 150-point system for applicants, which awarded 20 points for underrepresented minorities and only 12 points for perfect SAT scores. Currently, eight states ban affirmative action.
Personally, I support affirmative action. I fully believe that academic institutions should seek to promote opportunities for disadvantaged minority groups. We all came from different backgrounds and socioeconomic groups, and we weren’t all afforded the same opportunities. It is unfair to compare, for example, the research accomplishments of a student with access to university laboratories and professional mentorship to those of an equally dedicated, inner-city student with high science grades who did not receive the same guidance and spent spare time working jobs. Evidence of passion and a drive to succeed comes in many different forms.
College admissions, however, have abandoned the original goals of affirmative action. Instead of boosting hard-working students towards higher education opportunities, universities aim primarily to create a racially diverse student body.
Equating minority races with disadvantaged backgrounds is problematic. Consider two applicants with similar upbringings—one white, one an underrepresented minority—who are from the same middle-class neighborhood, attended the same high school, earned similar grades and test scores and participated in similar activities. The URM is favored because he will increase the university’s diversity index. But is he truly contributing to the diversity of the student body? His experiences are similar to those of his peers at home, not those of struggling, low-income members of his race. Yet he would also be considered a better applicant on paper than they. He has an advantage over both groups.
When Kwasi Enin recently gained national recognition for acceptance into all eight Ivy League universities (plus Duke and three SUNY universities), many people condescendingly attributed his achievement to race, while his defendants praised his credentials.
Did Enin get into those schools because he’s black? No. He’s a competent, well-qualified applicant who will thrive at Yale and could have thrived at any of his other options. He wouldn’t have been accepted if the institutions thought otherwise.
Did it help? Maybe. Enin’s performance is highly commendable, but I doubt that he’s the most exceptional student to have ever applied to the Ivies. It is certainly possible he benefitted from affirmative action.
The thing is, people like Enin don’t need the boost. Enin’s parents, both nurses, are immigrants from Ghana who greatly value education. African immigrants to America have higher rates of college education in the United States than any other immigrant group. Immigrants often make it to the U.S. because of success in their native countries. The overrepresentation of Asians in academia and professional positions is another example of this, although Asians face the opposite problem—they are held to higher standards.
Like any multifaceted issue, there is no simple answer. States that banned affirmative action have seen decreased Latino and black college admission. As long as overwhelming socioeconomic divisions exist between the races, racial preferences in the name of diversity seem inevitable, but universities should be asking how they can make admissions fairer for underprivileged students.
Pallavi Shankar is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Friday.