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Ka Punahou

The Student News Site of Punahou School

Ka Punahou

The Student News Site of Punahou School

Ka Punahou

Affirmative Action in Punahou’s College Counseling

Affirmative Action in Punahous College Counseling
Tiffany Katsuda ’26

For high school students interested in pursuing college, affirmative action will affect college acceptances, class diversity, and paths in higher education. Affirmative Action started as an executive order implemented to combat disparities faced by racial minority groups. It then became an accepted practice known to advocate for racial equity. The controversial practice is a subject of debate among students and others. In the summer of 2023, Affirmative Action was struck down by the Supreme Court in SFFA v Harvard. I interviewed the Director of College Counseling at Punahou, Mr. Ryan Scudder, to learn about its effects on the Punahou community. 

Mr. Scudder has worked in Punahou’s college counseling department for the past nine years, advising students through many changes in the college application process, such as the nullification of Affirmative Action, throughout his career. 


This interview has been edited for concision. 

It has been about half a year since the Supreme Court struck down Affirmative Action. Do you think their decision and affirmative action, in general, influenced how students felt about college applications in 2023? 

It was not as dramatic as anticipated, especially here in Hawai’i, since we are such a melting pot of cultures and identities. For our students, the Supreme Court decision was not at the top of their minds, at least the students we were working with. The decision came out in the summer, and when we came back in the fall, we started working with our students throughout the application process and finalizing college lists; many of them did not bring it up as far as altering or changing their course of action. I think a lot of that stems from the fact that Hawai’i is such a special place, with many cultures, that it is uniquely different from representation in other parts of the country where these issues are more prevalent and concerning.


Even if affirmative action is not a concern for Punahou students, do you think it should be something that applicants from Punahou should at least be aware of?

I mean, in any issue, there are going to be people that benefit from a certain action or ruling and others that feel that it is a detriment to them. The same can be said with us at Punahou. There are students who feel like the decision took away an opportunity for them to identify themselves, but the reality is that colleges have the autonomy to ask the questions they want to ask. The Supreme Court decision just eliminated the use of a check box to identify the student’s ethnicity to be used for admissions purposes. It forced the colleges to reevaluate their processes of looking at applicants. In light of the decision coming down, colleges are implementing the use of the supplemental essay to ask about the student’s background, identity, and cultural background. Colleges are still asking the same questions but in different ways. But yes, they still have to be mindful about how they approach it.


Are these supplemental essays more effective than the checkbox affirmative action uses when trying to get to know the applicant?

I think it would depend on who you ask. There are two sides to that argument that will tell you the benefits of why to have it or why to not have it. I think not having the checkbox and making it more of a supplemental response, where the students can either choose to write about it or not, really puts it in the student’s hands, to identify how much their cultures and values influenced and played a role in their life and how much they represent who they are. I feel like students have more choice in this process; granted, it makes applications more subjective.


It seems that either way, colleges are striving for more diversity, especially with different ethnic groups and minorities. Generally, do you think this is a positive thing?  

Yes, diversity of thought is important. It is something that a lot of colleges, after the Supreme Court decision, came out to say. It is what they truly value. As they are reading the applicants and shaping the class, there is concern that they might not necessarily choose or wind up having a diverse class simply because they do not know the background of each student. We will see what the results are at the end of this application cycle, at the start of summer when colleges share their profile of the incoming class , and the makeup of the student body.


Would there be better ways to instill diversity, like using an applicant’s home state and location as a factor? 

At the end of the day, representation and diversity can mean different things. Colleges pride themselves in trying to admit the most highly qualified applicant to their institution. Nowadays, the reality is that many colleges receive too many applicants that would be great fits for them, and they have to decide between them. Supplemental essays asked how the student would contribute to the college they wind up in. It helps the college to know how they are going to add value to their institution. It is kind of a byproduct of the result of the decision going down.


When supplemental essays were not as important and the checkbox was still in place, do you think students took advantage of affirmative action during the admissions process?

We manage students through this process so that it is very student-driven. We provide students with the tools and assistance they need for their application, but we do not do a final review of what is submitted to the college. The reality is that the student might say something that is not truly representative of the facts. I would like to say that when a college gets the application, they also receive lots of supporting documents too, like counselor recommendation letters and teacher recommendation letters for the colleges that require them. If there is anything out of line, or the admissions officer feels that something is out of context, they could reach out to us and ask us to clarify. It has been helpful and comforting to know that there are a lot of checks and balances along the way.


Do you think this student-driven process and the way you advise applicants might change in the future? 

 They could very well be. I mean, this process is ever-changing. In the last bunch of years since COVID, there have been a lot of changes to this college process: standardized testing becoming optional, the Affirmative Action decision, to AI and how that might influence applications. So I am curious to see the results of how this class shapes up, as far as where their outcomes are, where they decide to go, and really how this process moves forward.


Earlier, you mentioned Punahou’s diverse climate. From Punahou going on to college, do you think students’ experiences with diversity in Punahou shape how they look at the college they start attending?

Yeah, I think when Punahou students transition into college, they come from having an experience and their background from classroom spaces that are so diverse. When they look across the room, there are people from all different types of backgrounds. I think Hawai’i students generally have that advantage but when they go to college and they transition to colleges on the continent, there might not necessarily be that same representation. So, they are putting themselves in a different environment, and they have to assimilate to try to find their place.


Would you say that other educational institutions should try to cultivate the same feeling among their students as Punahou does? 

It would be great if everyone tried to be as great a melting pot as we are. I just think the diversity of thought, for humanity’s sake, an understanding of who we all are and the backgrounds that we bring, if that could start at an earlier age than college and older, then I could see that being more helpful for society as a whole.


     It is impossible to imagine Punahou without its diverse environment of students, teachers, and faculty from extraordinary backgrounds. However, other schools might not be a “mixing pot” as our school is. Minorities depended on affirmative action for opportunities they might not have been privileged to be born with. Only time will tell whether the ruling will have a lasting effect on inclusion in education.   

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