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Finding Balance Between Meritocracy and Diversity
Kevin Chen '18 Editor-in-Chief
January 24, 2018
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As an Asian-American, I often feel conflicted in the nationwide debate regarding race in college admissions. According to The New York Times, the percentage of students at Ivy League universities that are Asian-American has been relatively unchanged since the 1990s, despite the fact that in the USA, the number of college-age Asians has doubled since then, while the college-age white population has stayed about the same. Though most universities deny the use of quotas, such statistics have led many to believe in “Asian quotas” at elite universities — hence, the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation of Harvard University for discrimination.

Do I think racial quotas are fair? Absolutely not. They are in blatant contradiction with the principles of meritocracy that many of us, myself included, believe in dearly.

Then, do I believe in what some have called a “purely meritocratic” admissions process, one based solely on credentials, in which race and other measures of diversity are not considered at all? No, I don’t think that is the answer either.

My experience at Deerfield has taught me the value of diversity, as I have been exposed to a vast array of personal experiences while here — people of color have described the fear they feel when walking alone at night, others have recounted how Islam has inspired in them peace and compassion, and still others have explained why they supported Trump. In a diverse learning community, each student brings a wide range of such experiences, along with opinions and perspectives inspired by these experiences, to class discussions, thereby contributing to everyone’s education. Frankly, I would not want to learn in a community where everyone shares the same background and beliefs; it is hearing opinions that expand or challenge our own views that leads to self-reflection and a deeper understanding of the world.

Still, we must recognize that college admissions is a zero-sum game; each college has a limited number of beds it can fill, as the ever-dwindling acceptance rates nationwide can assure us. Thus, every applicant admitted in part for diversity reasons corresponds to an applicant who is rejected but would have otherwise been admitted. For me, this is the hardest part of the debate: the desires to create diversity and to make meritocratic decisions are inherently in conflict.

Issues such as socioeconomic status and historical injustices only further complicate the matter by blurring the concept of fairness itself. Is it fair to expect a student working multiple jobs after school to achieve the same test scores as one who has been tutored since childhood? And what about African Americans, who have been systematically disadvantaged by centuries of slavery, racist zoning laws, and everything in between?

Admittedly, giving a boost to the disadvantaged raises more issues as well: What if we are deciding between two applicants of equal merit: a white student who has faced significant adversity and a well-to-do African American student? Where do we draw the line for “significant adversity” or “well-to-do”? And what if the applicants were differing in merit?

I have no easy answers to these questions, but these questions are worth our time. While I do concede that there is a certain simplicity and perceived sense of fairness in the idea of admissions based solely on credentials, this system fails to take into account the disadvantaged and the value of diversity. I am not saying that the current admissions process is perfect by any means, as evidenced by the statistics supporting the idea of an Asian quota, but we, as a nation, cannot settle for the simple solution. We must continue to have conversations regarding inequality, historical injustices, and diversity, if we are to achieve both equitable college admissions and vibrant college communities.