Harvard’s Diversity Problem Goes Deeper than Race

7 minute read
Bastola is a rising sophomore at Harvard College and is a Board Member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association, Harvard South Asian Association, and Harvard CIVICS (program of the Phillips Brooks House Association), amici organizations in the S.F.F.A. v. Harvard case. He also leads the college’s Nepali Student Association

When I stepped foot on Harvard’s campus in the fall of 2022, I found myself to be a foreigner among the student body. Pristine, elite, and doused in money, Harvard seemed to be most of my peers’ territory—their destiny even. They were well-versed in the institution’s hidden curriculum—Harvard’s vast connections, fellowships, and affluent social networks that low-income communities have not been privy to—and thus, were well-equipped to navigate academic and social life. Meanwhile, I was still trying to figure out how to write a college paper.

Most of my peers, including those of color, were either part of, or at least familiar with this world, but because I was the first from my public high school to attend Harvard, this type of culture shock knocked me to the ground. The similarly privileged upbringings of many meant that, at least when it came to socioeconomic status, the community of thought at Harvard was quite homogenous. I, on the other hand, didn’t speak their language and was callow to their etiquette. How had Harvard’s social hierarchies solidified before I had a chance to participate in its social life? Before I could even make a case for myself.

Harvard’s elite student body boasts a misleading, yet saccharine sweet, diversity. The racial demographics of my class are convincing on paper—racialization can greatly affect how even well-off students experience life—but the college’s ability to maintain its cyclical production of a powerful elite while managing to make it a few shades darker, cannot be immune from criticism. A 2017 research study by The Equality of Opportunity Project (now Opportunity Insights) found that Harvard’s student body has about as many students from the top 1% by income as the bottom 60%. This information, coupled with Harvard’s racial diversity, gives sense to education policy expert Richard Kahlenberg’s 2018 finding that 71% of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students at Harvard came from the top socioeconomic fifth of their respective racial groups nationally. Kahlenberg noted that this percentage gets even higher for Asian and white students.

More from TIME

This all goes to show that diversity is not merely a well-distributed university racial profile. When talent exists in every sphere of our society, selective colleges cannot continue providing the elite of every racial group with a monopoly on opportunity. After all, a multi-racial aristocracy is still an aristocracy.

As a first-generation Nepali American student from Texas, my identity and family background subverts the Asian American stereotypes which pervade our society. I grew up in a working-class Asian American community, far removed from the wealthy one I entered last fall. Asian Americans—like all other racial communities—are not monolithic, but neither Students for Fair Admissions (who sued Harvard in the Supreme Court case that struck down the university’s affirmative action program) nor Harvard, itself, have contended with this. The model minority myth has been exploited by both sides to the detriment of Asians like me.

Read More: How the End of Affirmative Action Could Affect the College Admissions Process

According to a 2023 study done by the The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Indian American women make $1.07, Chinese American women $0.83, and Nepali American women $0.48 for every dollar a white man makes. With our vast intra-racial socio-economic inequality, Harvard must disaggregate its racial data—as suggested in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion—to further look at the social trends and patterns that are plaguing its admissions process.

Considering that Harvard’s “diversity” is predominantly composed of affluent minorities, it’s not a surprise, then, that Harvard’s admissions program failed the Supreme Court’s standard of judicial review with race-based classifications. The Court noted that the “opaque” nature of Harvard’s admissions and diversity goals counters the school’s ability to be “broadly diverse.” And while losing race-based affirmative action is a big setback to equity in education, sure to cause generational complications, the issue with college admissions goes deeper than race—it’s about how race interacts with class.

Watching Harvard’s attorneys argue before the Supreme Court in October 2022 for the limited use of race in pursuit of diversity, it was clear that affirmative action has been a critical tool for cracking Harvard’s doors open. I have benefitted from Harvard’s former race-conscious admissions regime. But in order to effectively work towards a world where affirmative action will no longer be a necessity, this affirmative action ruling must jolt Harvard, U.N.C., and its peer schools into an overhaul of their admissions practices.

The issue of affirmative action is certainly divisive, but many Americans can agree that Harvard and U.N.C.’s socioeconomically skewed campuses show that their admissions have never fairly practiced meritocracy and are far from perfect. Consequently, we must interrogate the resources and community investments an applicant has either received or been denied.

College admissions programs must update their practices to solve this accessibility problem. Sure, we can grab the low-hanging fruit by ending admissions preferences for the children of alumni and donors. But more importantly, universities are morally obligated to boost opportunities and recruitment in poor and predominantly-minority public schools nationwide. The Ivy League can start us off by finding a tiny fraction of its nearly 200 billion dollar endowment to fund college access initiatives in the form of counseling networks, teacher grants, tutoring programs, and after-school incubator programs—to name a few options. Princeton, with their two-year-old Center for Access and Opportunity, has already realized the role that higher education has in developing and inspiring high school students of all backgrounds. It is now time to accelerate these efforts to meet our society’s needs.

With our nation’s declining trust in higher education, prominent universities are rightfully on the firing line to reinforce the value of education as a tool for social and economic mobility. For too long, wealthy universities have pretended that the inequalities in our nation’s public K-12 education system are not their problem. But as long as one’s zip-code determines the amount of opportunities you can receive, selective colleges will continue to perpetuate a system of privilege and exclusion, exacerbating the gap between the rich and the under-resourced. By dismantling the barriers that prevent children from even dreaming of college, perhaps colleges can genuinely open their doors and stop ignoring the talent that exists in the many communities, mostly of color, that face structural barriers in education.

The truth is that the ruling’s impact is limited, considering that only 6% of all college students attend a school that accepts 25% or less of its applicants. Still, expanded recruitment efforts matter because all high schoolers deserve the chance to learn at a resourced school. We now have a window of opportunity to build on our civil rights battles, restore the spirit of affirmative action as a practice giving a leg up to those who need it most, and continue to make higher education more accessible in this country. Elite colleges must quit their endowment competitions to realize that they can improve college access for millions. The rest of us must wake up to see that aristocracy, not race-consciousness, bites our democracy.

Harvard has yet to open its doors to those multitudes of students and families who do not belong to the wealthy lineages that command the uppermost orbits in our society. Only a third of Harvard students come from the country’s “bottom” 80%. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. identified decades ago in his Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, America’s elitism problem—being inextricably tied to racial subjugation—requires a multi-racial response. Banging on the gates of higher education in every direction, our futures are bound to one another. We are all in this fight together.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.