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Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a frequent contributor to radio shows including Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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Jeff Yang: A new proposal to make Harvard tuition free is really a tactic to take down Affirmative Action

The primary beneficiaries of a free Harvard are wealthy applicants whose families can afford to pay

CNN  — 

For the past two decades, Harvard, the nation’s oldest and arguably most prestigious institution of higher learning, has been a primary front in the assault on Affirmative Action.

Since the early 1990s, it has been subject to a nearly continuous series of lawsuits and administrative complaints alleging that its admissions practices, which embrace “holistic” standards of admission that look beyond test scores and grades to take character and cultural context into account, are discriminatory against Asian applicants, whose test scores and grades are on average higher than other applicants.

The complaints quietly add that these standards are also discriminatory against whites, who currently make up 52.8% of admittances. Asians make up another 21.1%.

These challenges have repeatedly failed, and merely led to a hardening of the ranks between those who believe that Harvard has a moral and educational responsibility to reflect society’s diverse makeup, and those who insist that a Harvard education should be awarded only to those who quantifiably represent the “best and the brightest.”

Recently, a modest proposal by a renegade slate of candidates for Harvard’s Board of Overseers has opened up a new front in this battle and has thrown the neatly drawn lines of combat into chaos.

The scheme, put forward by the longtime conservative firebrand Ron Unz and the four candidates he recruited over the Christmas holidays, is deceptively simple. They’re running on the idea of making a Harvard education free for everybody. As in, complimentary, gratis, zero down, zero more to pay ever.

Unz’s helpers are Ralph Nader, consumer advocate; Lee Cheng, chief legal counsel for the online retailer NewEgg.com; Stuart Taylor, coauthor of the book “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help”; and Stephen Hsu, physicist and Michigan State University vice president of Research and Graduate Studies.

Together, they propose eliminating what they call the final obstacle for anyone considering applying for admission, spending down the university’s endowment of $38 billion – the largest of any educational institution in the world.

“Each year, the investment income the university receives from its private equity and securities holdings averages some twenty-five times larger than the net tuition revenue from its 6,600 undergraduate students. Under such circumstances, continuing to charge tuition of up to $180,000 for four years of college education is unconscionable,” they wrote. “If Harvard abolished tuition the announcement would reach around the world, and soon nearly every family in America would be aware that a Harvard education was now free. Academically successful students from all walks of life would suddenly begin to consider the possibility of attending Harvard.”

On the face of it, this seems like an appealing push toward making Harvard into a standard-bearer for educational access. These individuals embody both sides of the political aisle. Yet, even the ostensibly left-leaning members of the group, Hsu and Nader, make it clear that the effort isn’t truly intended to be charitable.

The free-tuition initiative is ultimately a bait and switch: Upon election, they intend to demand “transparency” in Harvard’s admissions process, specifically arguing for the release of data intended to expose what they believe to be persistent anti-Asian (and anti-white) bias.

As Hsu put it in a video interview with me: “Ron Unz has a history of clever hacks to the political system.” And this one may be his most clever yet.

By running a set of candidates whose claimed goal is to give Harvard away for free – an idea that most conservatives would find anathema and liberals might find worth embracing – Unz hopes to get hand-picked anti-Affirmative Action representatives onto the college’s second-most powerful leadership body.

Of course, Harvard is just the beginning. “Nader and Taylor both went to Princeton undergrad, so they say that if this works, Princeton’s next,” says Hsu.

Now, even the group admits that for a huge percentage of Harvard undergraduates, tuition is already not a bar: Harvard is already free to any student whose family earns less than $65,000 a year – a full 20% of the campus population.

And students from families who earn up to $150,000 must pay no more than 10% of their household income. And students whose families who earn more pay on a sliding scale; the percentage of Harvard students who pay full tuition is less than a third.

So does it make sense for Harvard to cost nothing for its undergrad 6,694 students, while tuitions for state, city and community colleges – which serve the tremendous majority of low-income individuals, immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities – continue to spiral upward?

Of course it doesn’t, especially when the primary beneficiary of the charity will be wealthy applicants whose families can afford to pay, and whose tuitions go to defray the cost of scholarship attendees.

But this isn’t really about charity.

For Unz and for a larger group of individuals whom I’ll call “Admissions Truthers,” the campaign is about revealing a vast conspiracy designed to advance blacks and Hispanics at the expense of Asians (and, quietly, whites).

To Admissions Truthers, holistic admissions are seen as nothing but a tool to hide discrimination and prop up unqualified blacks and Hispanics. They say that achieving transparency – by openly releasing applicant data – will demonstrate how Asians (and, quietly, whites) are actively disqualified on the basis of race.

The truth is that scores and grades are not the only determinant of merit. The qualities that make people truly exceptional achievers can’t be measured solely by grades and standardized tests. This is why some of the most famous Harvard alums aren’t those who graduated with the highest honors, but those who dropped out to change the world.

Harvard’s own Graduate School of Education recently issued a report recommending a radical change to the rubric by which college applicants are measured, proposing that instead of assigning merit solely to academic achievement, admissions offices should give greater weight to community contributions, charitable works and acts of service for the common good.

This might include caring for younger siblings or family elders, or working for Habitat for Humanity, or tutoring and mentoring underprivileged kids. The objective: Encouraging “ethical engagement” as well as “intellectual engagement,” and rewarding future leaders who’ve demonstrated character and traits associated with good citizenship.

Of course, Admissions Truthers are already calling the report a new assault on “meritocracy.” But that’s just a matter of definition.

Is humanity better served in fostering generations of young leaders whose sole interest is personal advancement via individual achievement and cutthroat competition? Maybe it’s time to embrace a vision of merit that accords “best and brightest” status to hearts and souls, as well as minds.

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