What it's like for minority students applying to elite colleges with affirmative action under threat

One student briefly considered not acknowledging his Asian descent on his application.
An ongoing lawsuit challenging the consideration of race in admissions could harm the use of affirmative action in education.

Three of the highest-performing seniors at Glen Ridge High School in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, are involved in so many extracurriculars that they all lost count when asked to recite them. They’re ranked among the top 10 in a class that’s placed over a third of its students in the National Honor Society.

Despite the students’ impressive qualifications, they began to worry about their applications to elite colleges. An ongoing lawsuit challenging the consideration of race in admissions could harm the use of affirmative action in education. And the Glen Ridge seniors — Ryan, Ethan, and Cadmus — are all non-white.


The litigation, brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, argues that Harvard University has negatively stereotyped Asian applicants and held them to higher test standards and tougher personality assessments. The constitutionality and value of affirmative action has repeatedly held up in the courts, but if the lawsuit reaches the now conservative-majority Supreme Court, the decision could alter the way all colleges consider diversity in admissions.

When Ethan, who’s half white and half Asian, learned of the lawsuit against Harvard, he briefly considered filling out his applications without acknowledging his Asian descent. “And then I realized that, well, one: I can’t lie on my application. And two: I just have to put it down,” he told VICE News. “It will just be what it is.”

For decades, affirmative action has allowed colleges to factor race and diversity into admissions decisions. The policy was designed to give more equal educational opportunities to minorities and women who have been systematically and historically disadvantaged.

While the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Asian, the muscle and money comes from white, conservative activist Ed Blum, who some worry may be using the experiences of Asians to ultimately end affirmative action.

Ryan, another senior at Glen Ridge who’s black, feels he’s compared to his mostly white and Asian classmates. They sometimes assume that affirmative action will make it easier for him to get acceptances.


“[I’m] not pitted against them in a very antagonistic sense — just in the sense that, oh, we’re both shooting for the same things, and it’s very unlikely that both of us could get into the school,” he told VICE News.

VICE News documented the experiences of the three students as they grappled with the lawsuit’s potential effects and the stress of early-action application deadlines.

Editor's note 2/20 1:19 p.m. ET: The students' last names have been removed from this article.

This segment originally aired Jan. 30, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.