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Colleges and Racial Bias: Holistic Admissions | Annie Lu

Colleges and Racial Bias: Holistic Admissions

by Annie Lu

Racial diversity has long been a topic of discussion in America, a notoriously pluralistic society. As a democracy, the U.S.’s governmental policies enable a plethora of cultures to thrive in the same country, allowing a multitude of people to share and compare their opinions. It also, however, triggers the innate revulsion humans seem to have towards anything foreign, anything unfamiliar. This diversity can be—and consistently is—viewed through both a positive and negative lens.

In May, 2015, 60 groups filed a complaint to the Justice and Education Department in regards to the standards that different ethnic groups are held to when considering college admissions. Holistic admissions is a policy founded on the idea that students are more than just a compilation of test scores, and colleges should factor in extracurricular activities, specific talents, and essentially “soft” skills instead (soft skills are skills associated with a person’s EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient, and how well they socially interact). While taking in consideration student’s social skills as well as their test-taking abilities seems to be perfectly reasonable, this new subjectivity allows colleges to make decisions based on cultural biases and political connections while claiming to examine the full extent of a person’s abilities.

Another aspect of this debate focuses on affirmative action. In April of 2014, the Supreme Court banned affirmative action in the context of admissions to Michigan’s public universities, reigniting an age-old controversy. Many other states had also banned this process, for example California, Texas, Washington, and Florida. Following the bans, the African-American and Hispanic populations declined noticeably in colleges throughout these states, causing Texas to re-adopt affirmative action eight years after it was first ruled out. While the Supreme Court decision was made in the face of truly equal opportunity, dissenting opinions protested that the majority was putting up barriers against racial minorities.

This problem is largely generated by education inequality at the high school level, given that poverty and racial discrepancies manifest themselves at college as well. For example, more prestigious institutions may require an outrageous fee simply for application, effectively out-ruling any possibility of lower-income students applying to that school, whether they are qualified or not. A study by the Georgetown University’s Center of Education and the Workforce finds that over 80% of enrollment by white students in recent years were at comparatively elite universities. Blacks and Hispanics, on the other hand, are most commonly enrolled in community colleges and other less-selective schools. Affirmative action would give disadvantaged students an upper hand, essentially “leveling” the playing field.

The clearest divide between the two opposing viewpoints stands as such: what is the definition of equal opportunity? Typically, “equal opportunity” is the condition that people are treated without regards to racial prejudice or preference, unless distinctions can be rationally justified. This is most commonly analogized to a footrace between different people, in which the fastest person—the person with the most merits in this area—wins. By this way of thought, tasks and opportunities should be given to those who are “most qualified” as opposed to arbitrary reasons such as having connections or a privileged upbringing. Although this seems to be the most rational course of action, this form of meritocracy is often fiercely contested by minorities who feel as if any merits of their own are overshadowed by racial or cultural discrepancies.

Proponents of this argument claim that the starting point of the race was never fair, as people have different experiences even before encountering the competition. In reference to this situation, Ha-Joon Chang of The Guardian, writes “We can accept the outcome of a competitive process as fair only when the participants have equality in basic capabilities; the fact that no one is allowed to have a head start does not make the race fair if some contestants have only one leg.” First of all, it is not socially appropriate to view minorities as crippled due to racial preference. Secondly, the intrinsic advantages some people have over others are part of the way of life, natural selection–how can we possibly bypass it? So colleges and institutions everywhere concede to this point by requiring certain students to bypass much higher standards than others. This is because, even though we may attempt to be as objective as possible, the human mind is conditioned to attempt decision-making based on inherent bias, and thus we can never be truly fair.

The ugly reality does not, however, excuse any intentional skewing of college admissions processes that so many schools have deigned to accept. It does not allow potentially disadvantaged groups to “level” the playing field by placing themselves on a higher platform. What it does entail is a plea to college admissions officers to view the world through a different perspective and to disregard any pre-existing notions of cultural and racial imbalances.

While both subjectivity and diversity are so inherent in human society, policies such as affirmative action can probably never be eradicated. Schools can amend for these things, however, by increasing transparency into the process of college admissions; by being honest with what factors actually influence acceptance rates to give applicants an accurate overview of which schools can offer what opportunities to whom. This transparency is what will truly open the doors of education to those who have worked hard for it. Hopefully, someday, it will also allow the cultural biases inherent in human nature to slowly be worn away by time.


  1. Sara Harberson, the LA Times. June 9, 2015. “The truth about ‘holistic’ college admissions”.

  2. Adam Liptak, the NY Times. April 22, 2014. “Court backs Michigan on affirmative action”.

  3. Ben Wolfgang, the Washington Times. August 5, 2013. “Report: racial divide still exists on college admissions”.

  4. Ha-Joon Chang, The Guardian. August 30, 2010. “We lost sight of fairness in the false promise of wealth”.

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