As those of us who are college and university teachers gear up for the fall semester, our profession is briefly back in the news with a high focus on the heartbreak of college admissions.
Let’s start with genuine heartbreak. Last Saturday, we learned that UC Irvine had rescinded acceptances for almost 500 students. The optics were pretty terrible. Ashley Gonzales, a first generation student who had turned down offers of admission elsewhere, told The Los Angeles Times that she “couldn’t stop crying.” IN order to attend her dream school, Gonzalez — whose parents are blue collar immigrants from Guatemala — had “earned a 4.0-plus weighted GPA in honors and Advanced Placement classes, mentored younger students and volunteered at an animal shelter and wellness foundation. She said she sometimes studied until 5 a.m. and missed every family party during her junior year.”
In the same story, “Carson,” a military veteran, told the paper of his frustration as he tried to navigate his options:
“They’re pretty much leaving us in the dark,” said the 22-year-old, who had planned to major in neurobiology after completing four years with the U.S. Marine Corps. “They seem like a monolithic bureaucracy, and students are completely powerless. When I talk to them, it’s like talking to a wall.”
Although friends of mine at Irvine say rescinding admission over the summer is normal there and at many other schools — an entering class also shrinks during the summer as students come off wait lists elsewhere and withdraw, or fail to maintain a minimum GPA — this was an unusually large number of students, and some seem to have been almost randomly selected.
The good news? David Leonhardt, who originally reported the story for The New York Times tells us this morning that nearly all the students have been reinstated. But who will teach them? This triumph over injustice masks another uncomfortable truth, my informants noted. Irvine will have to expand teaching loads and section sizes, putting greatest pressure on employees who are paid the least for their teaching, graduate students and contingent faculty. In other words, this wouldn’t have been a problem at all if Irvine had the resources to teach all the students who they judge qualified to attend.
Our next story is the drama of faux heartbreak amidst great wealth: the tragedy of not being admitted to the exact elite private school you prefer. Harvard University is being sued by Austin Jia, who will begin his sophomore year at Duke University this fall, in a case that the Trump Justice Department says it will support. Backed by a conservative Virginia group called Students for Fair Admissions, Mr. Jia alleges that his place at Harvard is currently being occupied by another, less high achieving person, who is — you guessed it — a member of another racial minority group.
Finding such plaintiffs seems to be one of the main purposes for SFFA’s existence. “Were you denied admission to college?” a form on its home page asks. “It may be because you’re the wrong race.” The “wrong race,” is Asian-American, the “new Jews” of college admissions, who — SFFA alleges — are being subjected to a quota, or “bamboo ceiling.” SFFA is also currently suing the University of Texas-Austin, The Department of Education (a FOIA request for documents about Princeton University), and the University of North Carolina; and is pursuing similar investigations of other Ivy League universities.
The world where students feel harmed by going to Duke rather than Harvard may be far from your concerns, but I used to live there. It is generally, in my experience, a rich white person problem, not a striving student of color problem. I remember having first year students in my office — at Wesleyan University — pouting because they had not gotten into Brown, and had ended up in our alleged hellhole of a campus, one that many other students would have given an arm to attend. One student I had as a first year advisee told me in our introductory meeting that she was beginning the process of transferring to Harvard immediately: she was convinced that their failure to admit her the first time around was an easily rectifiable mistake.
Jia’s suit is simply not civil rights litigation: it is a well-financed nuisance suit. In the years his case will take to wend its way to the Supreme Court, Jia will finish his degree at Duke and will go on to whatever brilliant career he is suited for; it will be increasingly difficult to show what better, alternative life Harvard might have offered him. It will also be difficult to prove that Asian quotas were in place at the time his application was being considered. If Ivy League schools have learned anything from the books that have already been written about their Jewish quotas, and the battle to admit women, it is probably to avoid writing memos that say things like: “Enough with the Asians already!” It may even be difficult, as Harvard graduate Jeff Yang points out, to prove that Asian-Americans don’t actually benefit from current admissions practices at Ivies.
So what should we be worried about?
The perpetuation of the model minority stereotype, one in which high achievement is considered the norm for Asian-American students, renders working-class Asian-American children, and the problem of unequal and scarce resources for the poor more generally, invisible. The key barrier to institutional access and class mobility for the poor is the mediocre quality of the secondary education to which they have access, combined with the rising cost of public colleges and universities.
In this regard, comparing the consequences of anti-Semitic policies at elite universities to our present moment is historically incorrect. During the same era in which Jews were subjected to quotas, exclusion, and painful social discrimination at Ivy League schools (Stephen Greenblatt’s anecdotes about anti-Semitism at Yale are worth a read), the United States had a robust and virtually free system of public higher education, one that became even more accessible to working class youth after World War II. But that system has been systematically defunded, privatized and made more costly in the last half century. In fact, given the more expansive financial aid policies at wealthy private schools, it might cost a working or middle class student of any race far less to go to Harvard than to UC Irvine.
We also need to be concerned about recycling another old racist stereotype in which African-American, Latinx, Native American and Pacific Island students — regardless of their social class, education, and achievement — are stereotyped as perpetually undeserving. Together with model minority stereotyping, these lawsuits do not resolve campus racism, they perpetuate it, and cultivate casually expressed contempt for students of color on campus. This was true at Wesleyan University, famous for its liberal campus atmosphere, and I have even observed it in our undergraduate degree programs at The New School.
Finally, competition for college admissions has been ratcheted up dramatically, but it is an utterly false competition powered by squeezing public resources directed to education, something to which the Trump administration and its libertarian allies are committed at a moment when a college education is crucial to successful employment. But you know who doesn’t have to worry about this problem? The children of alumni (between a quarter and a third of so-called “legacies” are admitted to top Ivies), the wealthy, and celebrities, the vast majority of whom are white students. While they are not admitted simply because they are white, these categories of applicant are sought after because their presence creates positive publicity for the university’s brand and bolsters the long term fund-raising capacity of the institution. Jared Kushner’s admission to Harvard, which was accompanied by a generous donation by his father, is often cited as an example of the Trump administration’s hypocrisy. But what is rarely noted is that this is a less common form of admissions preference than the long term cultivation of family giving: wooing multiple generations of the same family to a private university is an important piece of the fund raising puzzle. Although shifts in admissions policies that have expanded the diversity of the alumni base will change this, the majority of applicants who have access to such a preference will continue to be white for decades to come. And, barring change, it will still be a class preference: indeed, it is well known in the murky world of liberal arts college admissions, that institutions need to fill x number of seats with so-called “full payers” in order to support the generous financial aid policies that make such institutions affordable for middle class students of any race.
Fighting these lawsuits will take up valuable resources that might otherwise be used for education — but like everything else about the Trump agenda, and the long-term attack on higher education by the libertarian arm of the conservative movement, the biggest damage is in distracting us from the real conversation: how to expand and restore access to excellence in higher education, not force students to compete for diminished resources.
This is the conversation we need to have.
Claire Potter is Executive Editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School. You can follow her @TenuredRadical.