Odds are if you’re Jordanian or Arab, you’ve stared at the first page of your SAT wondering which little bubble to fill. White? Black? Asian? Other? Pacific Islander would be just as indicative as any of these. But the truth is that little bubble matters. Getting into college is easier for Hispanics and Blacks, even Whites, while it has gotten progressively harder for Asian applicants. But why? Racism? Pseudo-Segregation? Diversity? Forced Integration? Choice E: none of the above. The answer is opportunity.
The real formula for getting into college is ability divided by opportunity. The most difficult thing a university can do is line up all of its applicants on a level field, and it does that by contextualizing each applicant, and looking at them with a common denominator. When applicants from the best schools in the world are competing with those who had to maintain a night-shift job as they worked on their physics homework, the field is leveled by considering opportunity.
What colleges are actually looking for is how much you do with what you have. A lot of ability divided by a smaller opportunity yields a greater number. As opportunity increases, however, you’re expected to do better; increase your ability. In the end, the ratio doesn’t matter—colleges will look at the final number. That’s why colleges seem to restrict Asian applicants to a quota—it’s not about the race, but about the opportunity. The Korean and Chinese students who attend SAT boot camps will be held at a higher standard because of the opportunity they had. In the same pool of applicants, we cannot compare them with a Hispanic or Black applicant, who may have attended lesser schools, had worse teachers, and didn’t do as much over the summer.
The problem, however, is that students don’t seem to get this. Rami attended middle school in Syria and Jordan, and can testify to the sub-par education, even at really good schools, that kids receive compared with kids in other regions of the world. When students like us end up in places like King’s Academy, we meet students who, on paper, are much more qualified, but neglect to take the denominator into account. In other words, we meet people who have much more ability, but still belittle themselves, and feel discouraged—forgetting to factor in opportunity. We forget that it’s relative, and are sometimes unmotivated because we can’t imagine catching up with kids with greater opportunity. What you learn in high school is not what matters. Colleges, and employers, want to know what you can do with what you’re given.
This of course is not an excuse to slack off—on the contrary, just because some students from certain demographics had less opportunity only means they have to work harder to maximize ability. Affirmative action makes this possible, and reminds us to not blame the tools; because it’s not about the tools. It’s about the opportunity, and what we do with it.