The affirmative action debate threatens to become the single defining issue of the Asian American electorate in the coming cycle, with Asian Americans engaging in heated discussion for or against race-conscious affirmative action in higher education admissions. Supporters of affirmative action — who represent all facets of the AANHPI community — are holding fast to a rhetorical frontline of higher education access for all high school students, and emphasizing the value of affirmative action in removing barriers for underprivileged and underrepresented Black, Latino, Native and Asian American students.
On the other side are (predominantly Chinese American) Asian American organizations who have filed complaints and lawsuits against elite universities like Harvard seeking to end holistic review, spurred to act in part by conservative anti-affirmative action lobbyists like Edward Blum — the mastermind of the Fisher SCOTUS case of a few years back.
One of the chief arguments made by opponents of affirmative action is that college admissions is a “zero sum game” where each applicant is competing for a fixed number of offer letters. Thus, conclude affirmative action’s critics, any offer made to a non-Asian American student (one whom these critics also assert is underqualified) is illegitimate because it removes an opportunity for admission from an Asian American applicant (whom they also implicitly argue is more qualified and therefore more deserving of admission). Yet, this framing appears to fundamentally misunderstand both the goal of college admissions and the term “zero-sum game”.
In this post, I take on the idea that college admissions can be accurately described as a “zero-sum game”.
“Zero-sum game” is an economics term that refers to a fixed sum situation of strict competition, wherein any one participant’s loss exactly equals another person’s gain. A common analogy is in distributing a cake into slices between three party guests: giving one guest a bigger slice removes some available cake for another guest. Zero-sum games necessarily assert that each party guest is only interested in getting as much cake for themselves as possible.
On the surface, college admissions appears to be a zero-sum game, so long as we think of the purpose of the process as distributing a fixed number of offer letters to a number of applying students. This is because zero-sum games are commonly misinterpreted as applying to any situation of fixed resources.
However, this perspective ignores another (somewhat more complicated) concept in economics: the “non-zero-sum game”, which is an alternative situation to the zero-sum game.
A non-zero-sum-game is any situation wherein the gain of one participant does not exactly equal the loss of another participant, such that the total sum of the game is not zero. This does not necessarily mean that it refers to a situation of non-fixed resources; a zero-sum-game can still refer to the distribution of a fixed quantity of goods. There is, however, a key difference: a zero-sum-game describes a situation where all distributions are of equal value. A non-zero-sum-game, on the other hand, describes any situation where some distributions of the resource are preferable to other distributions; or, put another way, that there is added value to distributing the resource one way over another.
Going back to our cake analogy, a zero-sum-game would be if the game were defined entirely as a situation where we are trying to be rid of an unwanted cake, and if we told guests to compete for slices. A zero-sum-game would be if the party host simply doesn’t care if one party guest gets all the unwanted cake, or if the cake is evenly split between the three guests.
A non-zero-sum-game might also describe a situation of cake distribution, so long as it considers a second goal or parameter: that all guests receive an added benefit if all guests receive their desired amount of cake. We can think of it like this: the cake has greater value to all participants if it is distributed more equally to the guests rather than hoarded by one guest with a sweet tooth. The cake, in essence, becomes “larger” (or at least, more valuable) if everyone gets a slice.
This idea is moviesplained in A Beautiful Mind using as a (sorta objectifying, but you get the point) analogy of a bunch of bachelors competing to win dance partners: there is added value to all participants if every participant accepts a dance with the attractive girl’s friends, rather than all compete for the most attractive girl.
It should become clear by this discussion that zero-sum games are highly over-simplified situations. In fact, most situations in real-life are not-zero-sum games precisely because in most cases some “game” outcomes are preferable over others; that includes college admissions.
Colleges have a “fixed” number of available freshmen slots (actually, calling it “fixed” rather than “limited” is also a bit of a misnomer, but that’s a conversation for another time), but that does not mean that the college admissions process is a strictly competitive zero-sum situation. In actuality, college admissions is a non-zero-sum-game because (as with our cake analogy) some distributions of offers are more desirable and beneficial than others.
We understand that colleges derive additional benefit — to themselves and to each enrolled student — when offer letters are distributed in some ways over others. Specifically, we understand that there is added value — to all participants of the process — if the student body is diverse; that added value of campus diversity means that “the cake” can, in essence, get larger when it is distributed more widely.
Studies have shown that all students benefit from a racially and culturally diverse classroom. But, if we put aside racial considerations for a second, we can understand this concept simply by exploring a hypothetical where universities did not recognize the added value of distributing offer letters diversely across different declared major interests. Let’s say that universities didn’t care if they admitted a broad distribution of students interested in hard vs social scientists vs liberal arts. Yet, if a school admitted 90% of applicants who want to be engineers — and no fine arts students — not only would this significantly impair the capacity of the school to actually provide a proper education for all these students, but it would significantly impair the school ranking and the quality of education for individual students (who would now have to compete for significantly over-taxed engineering courses). Student culture would suffer by the absence of a thriving fine arts community in the student population.
So, for an admitted engineering student, an offer letter to a particular school might become more valuable if it is offered alongside offers to a broad range of non-engineering students, because it reflects an offer to a school that has a more enriched academic environment. This is a non-zero-sum-game.
What this post basically points out is that college admissions is not just a process of putting butts in seats irrespective of who those butts belong to in isolation from one another. College admissions officers also must consider the “compelling interest” of creating a diverse student body, and that the added value of this diversity creates tangible benefits to enrolled students.
When we describe college admissions as a “zero-sum game” we indicate that we fundamentally misunderstand this process. We also ignore the compelling interest of schools to generate on-campus diversity, and we further argue that diversity has no value to all enrolled students.
To say that college admissions is a “zero-sum game” is to say that student diversity (racial or otherwise) simply doesn’t matter. College admissions is not a zero-sum game precisely because it does: student diversity benefits all students.