After Affirmative Action: Problems with Racially Homogenous, Top-Tier Universities (OPINION)
Editor’s Note: This blog was written in response to our call for opinion pieces on the recent SCOTUS ruling on race-based college admissions at Harvard and UNC. You can read the ruling here.
The SCOTUS decision to deem race-based affirmative action unconstitutional has garnered a variety of reactions. Many celebrate this ruling for reasons Kenny Xu discussed with Heterodox East Asia in last year’s discussion about the topic. He argued in favor of a meritocratic system that allows the most intelligent students to learn from and innovate alongside top professors in elite institutions. In contrast, race-based affirmative action prevents individuals with the appropriate skills being matched to suitable schools, jobs and opportunities. Notably, it results in elite institutions’ unfair rejection of capable Asian-American students, as well as the acceptance of African-American students who are academically behind their peers.
I mostly agree with Xu's assessment and believe that the SCOTUS ruling will lead to students entering better-matched schools and building a more competent workforce. However, social comparison theory and observations of Sydney-based academically selective high schools forecast issues that may arise when Asian-Americans dominate elite schools.
Social comparison theory states that evaluations of self-worth and social value often rely on comparisons of our actions and achievements to those of others. We also tend to compare ourselves against people who appear similar to ourselves. Social comparison theory explains why racial homogeneity can be toxic, especially among perfectionists.
Having attended a single-sex selective school, I can attest to the psychological toxicity that accumulates when perfectionistic, high-achieving girls of the same racial background (primarily Asian) build a hyper-competitive environment. One tutoring centre that nearly all my classmates attended encouraged unfavorable social comparison by publishing the results and ranks of all students on a board outside the classroom. Predictably, the students would tease their ‘dumb’ peers and idolize the ‘smart’ ones.
In Sydney, almost all selective high schools in Sydney are dominated by students from a language background other than English (LBOTE), ranging from 80-97% of the cohort (97% LBOTE representing the consistently top-ranked school, James Ruse Agricultural High School). These students are mainly from China, Korea, and other East, South-East and South Asian countries. According to Christina Ho, these schools can be ‘hothouses breeding stress and anxiety’ where students resent their parents’ demands on academic performance.
The competitive edge permeates aspects beyond academics. I remember girls measuring and comparing thigh circumferences before sport and boasting about how their already small clothing sizes needed to be altered with extra buttons and safety pins to fit properly around their waists. The excessive, pervasive competition can crush students’ well-being and achievement. My coping mechanism in this environment was to crawl into an isolated corner of the school to write my novel.
"The removal of race-based affirmative action will equalize opportunities for students of all backgrounds to be matched with universities that can support their learning. However, there is potential for Asian students' well-being and achievement to suffer in a world after race-based affirmative action."
Other students were less fortunate. One girl (Mary*) who transferred into my cohort in Year 11 had been the top student at her local school. However, she was an average student in the selective school. After some rumored participation in Tumblr’s self-harm culture, she dropped out part way through Year 12. The irony was that Mary’s scores were all higher than mine. I completed the Higher School Certificate with an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 94, meaning that Mary would likely had finished with 95 or above which would be sufficient to apply for a number of law or medical schools.
The removal of race-based affirmative action will equalize opportunities for students of all backgrounds to be matched with universities that can support their learning. However, the example of Asian-dominated Sydney selective schools demonstrates the potential for Asian students' well-being and achievement to suffer in a world after race-based affirmative action. Below are ideas that can help students thrive both in school and professional life, regardless of their institution’s prestige or amount of diversity:
- Cultivate a sense of intrinsic worth and motivation. This is not the same as indulging children with participation trophies. Intrinsic worth and motivation are about belief in one’s potential and driving oneself to improve on a desired skill regardless of external reactions. For example, even though I was an underachiever in my cohort, I did not allow that to define me as ‘dumb’. I pursued my theoretical interests and creative writing endeavors which have defined my tertiary experience and sense of competence.
- Build a social world outside of school. Buying into the delusion that school is the universe is poisonous to any student, regardless of their social standing. ‘Unpopular kids’ will feel as though no one in the world will ever value them. ‘Queen Bees’ will crumble upon meeting a social reality that treats them as equals to others.
- The presence of decent mid-tier educational options to fall back on. When the choice is between a hyper-competitive selective school and one where the majority of students end up addicted to substances or pregnant, parents may place unreasonable demands on their child simply to avoid them being placed in the bad school. Having a variety of decent mid-tier educational options can ease the pressure of either going to a highly competitive selective school or poorly resourced local school, which was often the choice for girls in my cohort who lived in south-western suburbs.
- Sufficient professional mobility for those who attended mid-tier institutions. Certainly, employers are justified to look favorably upon those with the persistence and intelligence to graduate from elite high schools and universities. However, this favoritism should not overshadow any prospect of students from mid-tier institutions at expanding their professional opportunities. For example, it should be conceivable that a proactive student from a mid-tier institution who capitalized on various intellectual development and skill-building courses can be equally competitive to a student from a more prestigious institution.
While I agree that the SCOTUS ruling on race-based affirmative action will lead to more equal opportunities for students, especially Asian-Americans at elite US universities, it’s also important to recognize the toxicity that can come with racially homogenous, hyper-competitive environments. The solution, however, is not cosmetic adjustments to elite institutions’ racial make-up, but rather fostering confident and intrinsically driven students while facilitating social mobility across educational tiers.
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