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”.