The biggest problem with the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit against Harvard for allegedly discriminating against Asian-American applicants — which went to trial on Monday — isn't just that it's brought by a group founded by conservative activist Edward Blum, who has tried previously to dismantle affirmative action to better favor white applicants in Fisher v. University of Texas.
And it isn't that Blum now enjoys the support of the U.S. federal government, after the Trump administration filed a statement of interest in support of SFFA in August, purporting to represent the interests of Asian-American students who lack access to higher education “because of their race.” (About three weeks ago, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education launched another investigation looking into whether Yale, my alma mater, unfairly denied admissions to Asian-Americans.)
It's that the rhetoric used by Blum, SFFA and the Trump administration suggests that they’re solely trying to help Asian-American students gain an equal opportunity to access higher education when it appears that my community is being used as a pawn by political operatives who don’t actually care about our needs.
That was already clear when Blum responded to the Fisher case’s outcome with “I needed Asian plaintiffs” because having a white female plaintiff failed. His interest in eliminating any affirmative action is clearly not to help Asian-Americans. But, at best, if the Trump administration’s purported interest is to truly help us access higher education by making it marginally more likely that some of us will get into highly competitive universities, its actions are misguided because the vast majority of Asian-Americans aren't even trying to get into Ivy League schools.
And, though I graduated from Yale, I'm actually a case in point.
Growing up, I knew that I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know if I could, as a low-income student and the son of immigrant refugees who themselves never got a higher education. Schools like Harvard and Yale, with admission rates around 5-6 percent, weren’t the institutions that would realistically give someone like me a shot at higher education. However, institutions with admission rates of 100 percent would.
Get the think newsletter.
Like many students across America, I enrolled at a community college. And, as I walked onto my community college’s campus, I was struck by the number of fellow Asian-American students.
Despite perceptions of all Asian-Americans as a well-off “model minority,” the poverty rate for Asian-Americans is only slightly below the national average at 12.3 percent (compared to 15.1 percent in 2016). Certain subgroups have higher poverty rates, such as Cambodian-Americans' 18.2 percent, Hmong-Americans' 27.4 percent and Burmese-Americans’ 39.4 percent. And, though more Americans have college degrees than ever and more high school graduates than ever go straight on to college, the number of low-income high school graduates going onto college is actually going down.
As a result of these trends, many Asian-Americans who — like me — are first-generation college students, low-income, adult learners or new immigrants choose community colleges as their initial entry into higher education. In fact, nearly half of all Asian-American students attend community college despite the stereotypes of our community exclusively attending elite four-year universities. In some states, such as my home state of California, the majority of Asian-American students attend community college.
As someone whose graduate research now focuses on higher education systems from around the world, I’ve grown to deeply appreciate the unique role community colleges serve in the U.S. by making higher education accessible, as it did for me and the plurality of Asian-American students. Community college is what made higher education and socioeconomic mobility a reality for me years before I even transferred to Yale. And community colleges are not only the initial point of entry for many students interested in higher education, but they are also as institutions that offer vocational training and certificates, remedial education and GED courses, all of which can help low-income students access an increasingly complex and difficult job market.
At a time in which the fastest-growing jobs require post-secondary education, community colleges offer low-income students — including Asian-American students like me — an equal shot to access a higher education and a path to the middle-class.
Despite this, community colleges don’t get the government support necessary to carry out their missions, and funding cuts make it difficult to improve completion and transfer rates. While the Obama administration often emphasized the importance of community colleges, the current president views community colleges with ambivalence. He’s dismissed the value of community colleges, such as in a speech earlier this year when he said, “I don’t know what that means, a community college.”
The irony of the federal investigation into Harvard and Yale is that, if the Trump administration truly cared about increasing Asian-Americans’ overall access to higher education, it would focus on where most Asian-American students get access to higher education instead of dismissing those institutions.
Politically, however, the focus on Harvard and Yale makes sense: Attacking these institutions fits into a populist narrative of painting these universities as bastions of “snowflake” elites (unless when one’s Supreme Court nominee graduated from there). And in a time in which America's demographics are changing (minorities will exceed 50 percent of the U.S. population by 2050), attacking affirmative action is a strategy that conservatives believe can peel Asian-Americans away from the Democratic Party en masse, even if the person who initiated the legal proceedings didn’t intend to help Asian-Americans in the first place.
Blum’s plaintiffs in the Harvard case are hardly representative of the broader Asian-American community. Though they have remained anonymous, he describes them as “valedictorians” with “outstanding test scores, outstanding AP exposure, and course grades,” who “won science exams… debates… tennis tournaments” — all descriptions of students whose parents likely had the financial resources to afford AP class fees, potential test preparation classes and expensive extracurricular activities. One student who filed a Department of Education complaint which alleged that Harvard and Yale discriminated against him, felt that he “deserve[d] better” when he wasn’t accepted to any Ivy League school “except for the University of Pennsylvania” (the same Ivy League school that the president graduated from).
These are hardly the students who "lack access" to higher education; they just didn’t get into their preferred Ivy League schools (and 90-95 percent of all Ivy League applicants don’t) and ended up in other similarly elite institutions. For instance, the student who dismissed his admission to Penn as unacceptable just graduated from Williams College, which is the number-1 ranked liberal arts college in the U.S. It is easy to imagine how, at the age of 17, students who have often been told they are exception feel understandably hurt by their first rejections and were thus susceptible to SFFA's targeted advertisements with the tagline: “Were you denied admission? It may be because you’re the wrong race” (I also got these ads on Facebook).
This Harvard case, whatever the outcome, may eventually wind up to the Supreme Court, as the Fisher case did before it. With (Yale alumnus) Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the way institutions consider diversity in admissions may be forced to change.
Regardless of this case’s outcome, since the Trump administration has made it clear that it purportedly cares about increasing Asian-Americans’ access to higher education, it should follow through in supporting the community colleges which educate the plurality of Asian-Americans. Otherwise, it becomes evident that the administration doesn’t truly care about the Asian-American community but is simply interested in temporarily using our community as a tool to further its ideological agenda.