Is Fairness Worth Sacrificing for Equality?

Nathan ZhangMarch 4, 2019Society and the IndividualThe Big Question
Is Fairness Worth Sacrificing for Equality?

Humanity has always been enthralled by the concept of equality.

Over the course of history, we have strived to make the world more and more equal, whether through changing forms of government or giving rights to the disadvantaged. But now, in the 21st century, there seems to be a split between those who want equality and those who want fairness. Though on the surface it seems these words have the same meaning, fairness and equality are two separate concepts. When people talk about “fairness,” they mean equity, or the equality of outcome, whereas when people talk about “equality,” they mean the equality of opportunity. Fairness evens out where people end up to make the result more equal; a fair race, for example, would be one in which all runners finish at around the same time. Equality evens out where people begin to make sure everyone has an equal chance; an equal race would be one in which all the runners start at the same time. No issue better exemplifies this debate than college admissions.

It is no secret that colleges in the United States are getting incredibly selective. In 2018, the University of California, Los Angeles, was the most applied to public school in the country, garnering over 113,000 applications. Of these 113,000, more than 97,000 were rejected, the most rejections ever given by a single college in American history. This downward creep in admissions percentages has affected other schools as well. Admissions to every single member of the Ivy League have dropped by nearly 50% since the start of the 2000s. In addition, the list of qualities colleges are looking for has only gotten broader. In the past, good grades and standardized test scores were all that was needed to get into a top tier university; now, they’re the baseline requirement. On top of grades and test scores, schools today are seeking students with extracurricular activities, volunteer work, community leadership, awards, honors, and a plethora of other qualities.

These rising standards, coupled with decreasing acceptance rates, have certainly caused outrage among many prospective college students, who complain that the admissions process is nothing more than a crapshoot. But no admissions policy has incited more national controversy than affirmative action, where there stands an ongoing debate around fairness versus equality. And affirmative action, which is the policy of granting admissions preference to underrepresented minorities, has cemented most colleges in the “equality of outcome,” or fairness, camp.

Originally conceived in the Reconstruction era, after the abolishment of slavery, affirmative action was created to counteract historical discrimination that African Americans faced due to a history of slavery. Due to this discrimination, many African Americans did not have access to the same resources that Caucasian Americans did, and affirmative action sought to remedy that discrimination. Over time, it was expanded to include other underrepresented minorities such as Hispanics, who similarly lacked access to educational resources. Today, many people believe affirmative action is still needed because historic inequalities have not been completely fixed and many underrepresented minorities still lack access to resources that Caucasian Americans have.

While affirmative action does benefit underrepresented minorities, it does so at the cost of disadvantaging Asian American students. Asian American students have historically excelled in the college admissions processes, being one of the few overrepresented minorities on campuses. Yet this success comes with a price. With affirmative action, on average, Asian American students need to score 50 points higher on the SAT than their Caucasian counterparts, and 280 points higher than African Americans.

A recent lawsuit filed against Harvard University revealed that Asian Americans were consistently ranked lower in their personal ratings, one of the four factors that Harvard uses to determine admissions, along with academic, extracurricular, and athletic ratings. Even though alumni interviewers rated Asian American applicants comparably with the rest of the applicant population, admissions officers rated them lower on traits such as “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness, and being “widely respected.” Further analysis showed that this personal rating significantly reduced Asian Americans’ chances of being admitted.

When schools such as Caltech and the University of California system stopped implementing affirmative action, Asian American enrollment skyrocketed. But the disadvantaging of Asian American applicants is a sacrifice that many colleges are still willing to make. For them, and for many affirmative action supporters, the greater diversity of their campuses and the admission of underrepresented minorities outweighs the benefit of giving all applicants completely equal consideration, regardless of race.

However, for members of the Asian American community, especially the Chinese American community, these policies are seen as racist and discriminatory. At dinner tables with my extended family, this is the one topic that will always whip everyone into an excited, enraged fervor. On “chanceme” forums, where students post their stats and ask others to rate their chances of acceptance to the college of their choice, posters who make it known that they are Asian receive condolence notes telling them that their applications will be graded much more harshly. At school, I have heard friends and classmates worry that they won’t be able to get into their dream schools just because they are Asian. And how can I forget the horror stories told by countless Chinese netizens, detailing how Asian kids with straight A’s and perfect SAT scores were denied by all universities except their safeties? When I hear these stories, I often feel hopeless and overwhelmed. How could I not, when no matter how hard I try, it seems like my efforts will never be good enough?

At the same time, I cannot fathom applying to college in a country like China, where in order to achieve perfect equality, admissions decisions are made based on a single test. The gaokao, or National Higher Education Entrance Exam, is a weeklong test taken by millions of Chinese high schoolers each year, and their final scores are the only determinants of what colleges they’ll go to. No other factors, whether extracurriculars, family income, or disability, matter. The test can only be taken once per year, and when scores come out, the decision is final. In essence, for millions of students, this one test determines their entire future. Students in China spend their whole lives studying for it. Those who do well are sent to the nation’s most prestigious universities. Those who don’t are forced to attend less prestigious institutions, and, in extreme cases, end up committing suicide in shame. To me, this type of system sounds much worse than the one in the United States. It appears that in perfect equality, there are still unintended and immoral consequences.

In the end, this issue boils back down to the overarching question of fairness and equality. I sympathize with both sides. On one hand, I know that minority groups deserve to be equally represented and that affirmative action could be the only way to do that. Sometimes, a little bit of fairness may be the only way for things to change. On the other hand, I’m still drawn to the ideal of equality, where everybody starts off equally, and the hardest working and most talented succeed. It is the ideal I strive for, and the one that I believe most societies as a whole strive for as well. And though I have seen examples, particularly in China, where a purely equal system graded on an objective metric still causes suffering, I feel like there is a way we can balance the two factors, and create a society that is, for the most part, both fair and equal.

One thing I do know is that this argument will not be resolved soon. People much smarter than I am have been debating this question for decades and will continue to do so for decades to come. Some individuals will use this continued disagreement as an argument that the whole debate is futile, that there is no right answer, and that we should just stop talking about this topic entirely. But I disagree, because this debate is too important not to talk about. Fairness and equality tie into the very essence of justice itself. The conversation’s implications are broad, for whatever direction society decides to choose, those affected will not only be college students, but individuals in politics, economics, criminal justice, and countless other fields. So for them, and for all of us, we should keep pursuing this question. Even if there is no right answer to whether it’s better to be fair or equal, we owe it to ourselves to find the best answer we can.


"California's Asian Spring." Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2014.

Espenshade, Thomas J., Chang Y. Chung, and Joan L. Walling. "Admission Preferences for MinorityStudents, Athletes, and Legacies at Elite Universities." Social Science Quarterly 85, Number 5 (December 2004): 1422-1446.

Hartocollis, Anemona. "Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says." New York Times, June 15, 2018.

Ivy Coach. "Ivy League Statistics."

Renton, Scott. "The Gaokao: China’s Year 12 Exam is Driving Students Crazy." VICE, June 1, 2016.

University of California, Los Angeles. "Admissions." UCLA Academic Planning and Budget.

Nathan Zhang is a 12th grader currently living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He lived in China for about three years. His hobbies include reading, writing, gaming, computer hardware, and enjoying all kinds of food.