What Is Fair? High School Students Talk About Affirmative Action | KERA News

What Is Fair? High School Students Talk About Affirmative Action

Dec 23, 2015
Originally published on January 3, 2016 9:26 pm

Now that the Supreme Court is considering the issue of affirmative action in college admissions, all kinds of groups are weighing in. But we're not hearing from the people who will be most affected by the court's decision: college-bound teenagers.

The teenagers we talked to attend two suburban high schools near Washington, D.C.: One is majority black and the other school has a mix of Latino, black, white and Asian students. The 16- and 17-year-olds knew little or nothing about the case that's before the Supreme Court — Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin — or about Abigail Fisher, the young woman who sued the university back in 2008. Fisher was denied admission because, she argued, the university wanted more minorities and she was white.

So here's the question we asked the students:

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Affirmative action in college admissions is once again before the Supreme Court. The justices are considering the case of a white woman who says she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race. Several advocacy groups have weighed in, but we don't often hear from the people who will be most affected by the court's decision. NPR's Claudio Sanchez sought out college-bound students to find out what they think.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The teenagers I talked to attend two suburban high schools near Washington, D.C. One is majority black. The other has a mix of Latino, black, white and Asian students. The 16- and 17-year-olds I met knew little or nothing about the case before the U.S. Supreme Court - Fisher vs. the University of Texas in Austin - or about Abigail Fisher, the young woman who sued the university back in 2008. Fisher was denied admission because, she argued, the University wanted more minorities, and she was white. So here's the question I asked kids. Should college admissions' decisions take race into consideration?

DONOVAN HARVEY: Yes, I do think that race should be taken into consideration when looking at college admissions.

SANCHEZ: Donovan Harvey, 16, is African American and a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County, Md.

HARVEY: We hear all the time about the racial disparities in K-through-12 education slanted against minorities, particularly African-Americans and Latinos. So to me, it doesn't make any sense when we're talking about applying and going into institution of higher education - oh, now it becomes colorblind; now we're not going to look at race.

SANCHEZ: Race-conscious policies, says Donovan, are a way to balance the system. Kristen Beanchamp, 17, is sitting across the table from Donovan, shaking her head. She's white and a senior.

KRISTEN BEANCHAMP: I don't believe that race should be a primary factor, if at all, a factor, period because that way, like, there won't be quotas. It's not like your race plays a factor. That should not be the only thing 'cause I'm not like everybody else in my race. You're not like everybody else in your race. I mean, no one is the same. Like, everybody is different.

SANCHEZ: The issue of race and ethnicity at Roosevelt can be touchy. The school, after all, is majority black, but most kids in the top academic programs are not, just like the selective colleges Donovan is applying to.

HARVEY: Getting into college is about merit. That's what it should continue to be. It shouldn't be, oh, we're going to start letting in all of these unqualified minority candidates when there are lots and lots of qualified minority candidates that just don't have the opportunity.

SANCHEZ: But the argument that college admission policies are mostly about merit rings hollow for some students. Anh-Thi Le, 17, is Vietnamese-American and a senior at Northwood High School, one of the most racially diverse schools in Montgomery County, Md. Anh-Thi is applying to Georgetown University and other top schools where Asians are overrepresented.

ANH-THI LE: If it's in a top school and I'm just put against all these other accomplished Asian students, I'm afraid that they'll see me as just another Asian student, like, the same as everyone else.

SANCHEZ: Even though, says Anh-Thi, Asian kids from poor immigrant families like hers face the same daunting odds poor black and Latino students face.

LE: They weren't given as much guidance when it comes to college. They don't have the same, you know, resources, such as, like, expensive SAT classes or, you know, educated parents that can teach them how to get into college. So they have to work a lot harder than a white student. I don't think that's fair.

SANCHEZ: So what is fair? Seventeen-year-old Calvin Stinson, a senior at Northwood, says race-neutral admissions policy sound fair. Calvin says he's half Irish, half Swedish. Should that matter to the admissions office at Tulane University where he's applying? No, says Calvin.

CALVIN STINSON: When I applied to Tulane, I put on that I was white. Actually, my mom was saying, don't put it on there; just leave it blank 'cause you don't have to answer. But I felt like it gives me a disadvantage, so be it - gives me a disadvantage.

SANCHEZ: Calvin says he's not worried, though. His grades are good enough to get him into any good school, and that's how it should be. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.