TOPICS > Education

Should affirmative action be based on socioeconomic status?

March 31, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Colleges' intentions are good when they use affirmative action, says doctor and author Andrew Lam. But seeing Asian-American kids fear they will be disadvantaged because of race has made him think we can make the system better. Lam offers his humble opinion on giving truly disadvantaged but accomplished kids greater opportunity.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, doctor and author Andrew Lam offers his Humble Opinion of how affirmative action in college admissions should evolve.

DR. ANDREW LAM, Author: There are lots of stereotypes about Asian Americans. I probably fit some of them. I did well in school. I played a couple instruments. I went to Yale and became a doctor.

I now volunteer to interview Yale applicants each year. My ties to the college are strong, especially since my dad also went there in the 1960s. At the time, there were only about 10 Asians in his class. Today, Asians make up about a fifth of the students on campus.

In fact, there are now so many Asians at elite colleges that many Asians fear affirmative action makes colleges hold them to a higher standard.

Asian students straight out ask me if being Asian will hurt their chances, or if it’s better to mark their race as other, instead of Asian.

Seriously? We have reached the point where kids are afraid to admit their own ethnicity? It’s true.

And, sadly, it appears their concerns are not unfounded. One study showed Asians had to score higher on the SAT than all other ethnicities to get into top colleges.

In a recent lawsuit, Harvard was accused of using race quotas and maintaining a cap on Asian enrollment for decades. To me, the worst part of this isn’t that some kid who looks like my son won’t get into the Ivy League. It’s that truly disadvantaged Asians get lumped in with model minority Asians.

There are economically disadvantaged students from Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong communities. There are Pakistani and South Asian students whose parents scrape by working 100-hour weeks. Affirmative action has the potential to hurt these individuals most of all.

But let’s be fair. Colleges’ intentions are good. They use affirmative action to craft diverse classes because we all benefit from exposure to people of different races and backgrounds. I strongly agree with this.

Would I have preferred to go to a Yale that was predominantly Asian? Absolutely not. So, I support affirmative action. But I also know we could do it better. We should assist students based on socioeconomic disadvantage, no matter their race. There are rural white kids who deserve special preference, but aren’t getting it.

There are affluent minority students who may not need that help to succeed. Doing this wouldn’t make sense if it reduced racial diversity. But it doesn’t have to.

A detailed study of colleges that switched to socioeconomic factors showed the majority had stable or increased black and Hispanic enrollment.

One student I interviewed worked at a fast-food restaurant to help support her family. Another had to care for two younger siblings, an obligation that prevented him from doing extracurricular activities.

I could tell you their races, but should it matter? You can’t judge someone’s accomplishments until you appreciate the obstacles overcome to achieve them. And if this could be a better way of doing affirmative action, rather than simply looking at someone’s skin color or a box they check, maybe we should give it a try.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Andrew Lam.

SHARE VIA TEXT