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Negative Affirmation

College students walk through an open door, with a diploma sticking out
Ryan Vellinga

Local AAPI students ponder college admissions in a post-affirmative action world

The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2023 decision ending a decades-long battle over affirmative action initially sparked division, particularly in the Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, community. With colleges and universities barred from taking race into consideration in selecting students, thousands of Black, Hispanic, AAPI, and other racial minority applicants lost the assurance of educational opportunity at elite and selective schools, where affirmative action was a factor.

It will be years before data on college admission rates reveal the full effect on campus diversity. In the meantime, over the winter break, as high school students began applying to their dream schools, Desert Companion checked in with students at Sierra Vista High School, which has a substantial AAPI population, to see if it was having an immediate, anecdotal impact on their choices.

Overall, it seems, the change will likely raise little concern in Nevada, where a majority of students attend in-state institutions such as UNLV and UNR. In a statement, UNLV, which prides itself on being highly diverse, reminded the public that the decision would “not fundamentally impact (their) open-access policy ... or mission of supporting a culture of equity and inclusion.” With a roughly 85 percent acceptance rate, UNLV’s student population comprises about 15 percent Asians and 1 percent Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders, according to the school’s fall 2022 statistics.

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Reflecting this indifference in regard to the end of affirmative action is Sierra Vista High School junior Vanessa Olaco-Mora, a member of the AAPI community. An aspiring nurse, she plans to attend UNLV or UNR for her general education and isn’t worried about getting into either school. But she does feel her cultural identity could come into play at her top choice for nursing school, University of Southern California (USC).

“Although my racial and cultural background are important as a Filipino American, how I am as a student is equally important,” Olaco-Mora says. Her mother, Alma Olaco-Mora, feels otherwise, saying that affirmative action is more of a “hinderance, because it shouldn’t matter what her race is ... (Schools) should accept her because of her capabilities.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling may matter more to students applying to competitive schools out of state. Japanese American student Brooke Ushiroda, also a junior at Sierra Vista, is interested in the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, University of Washington, and UC Irvine — on top of UNLV and UNR — for a business, finance, or economics major. UC schools implemented race-neutral admission policies when California banned affirmative action in 1996. Since then, Black and Latino enrollments decreased by 40 percent, according to a 2020 study by Zachary Bleemer, an economist at Princeton University. In a June 2023 interview with NPR, Bleemer said white and Asian American students filled those seats, but “there was no commensurate gain in (the) long run.” Despite the policies, university officials say, schools have struggled for the past 25 years to reach diversity goals. Ushiroda worries about the low acceptance rates at UC Irvine, but she believes that “getting good grades, being in AP classes, joining clubs, and overall being a well-rounded student” is her ticket in.

Students often cite being “well-rounded” as their strategy for standing out among thousands, but it’s especially highly encouraged within minority groups, whether it be from parents or peers or the model minority myth. “In the scope of AAPI, the end of affirmative action will force universities to focus on merit and accolades, which doesn’t really change what our Asian parents and students have been doing,” Sierra Vista English teacher Richard Truong says. A recent UNLV grad working at his alma mater, Truong thinks the recent changes won’t affect his high-achieving AAPI students. “I can also see it as a cap being lifted in universities that may only be accepting a certain amount of Asian American students,” he says.

Of course, the end of affirmative action does nothing to address the harmful tendency of viewing the AAPI community as a high-achiever monolith. It also dismisses the struggles of first-generation and low-income students, who already have the odds of admission stacked against them. Nevada students are underserved in the state’s public education system, a potential disadvantage to students seeking postsecondary education out of state. An analysis of 2022 data done by scholarship matching firm Scholaroo found that Nevada was the second-worst-educated state in the country, while the Education Law Center ranked our schools 47 out of 51 in terms of funding. In addition to graduating from this disproportionately ill-funded system, the state’s minority students now also have lost the advantage of their race being a positive factor in the admissions process.

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“It’s definitely harder for me to find support as an upcoming first-generation college student, but my counselors have been my greatest resource,” says Jackson Lieu, a Sierra Vista senior applying to CSN and UNLV for 2024. Lieu wishes there were more programs to help students like him with scholarships and applications. For school counselors such as Sierra Vista’s Roy Teng, the ruling introduces new future challenges in advising. “With affirmative action, I was always able to tell my students, especially the AAPI students, to apply and apply, even if you feel like you’re not going to get in,” Teng says. “Without it, while we don’t know the outcomes of it yet, it’s hard for me to just tell them to apply. Now it’s thinking like, what more can we add to the résumé for you to apply to certain schools?”

As possible answers for both students and counselors, he points to the College Board and similar resources that provide guidance in understanding the ruling, along with SAT fee waivers for low-income 11th and 12th graders.

Whether or not the end of affirmative action will have major ramifications on AAPI students in selective out-of-state colleges will depend on those schools’ other race-related admissions policies, if any. But among a diverse student body that already suffers from social and economic inequalities, it’s unlikely to help.