Preserving Affirmative Action

 /  Jan. 27, 2019, 4:16 p.m.

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Will Hart

In the wake of the Harvard trial concerning Asian Americans’ prospects of college admission, the Affirmative Action debate rages as strongly as ever. Proponents of Affirmative Action argue that it compensates for socioeconomic disparities between students, as students of certain ethnic or racial backgrounds are disproportionately from lower income families. Furthermore, Affirmative Action enhances diversity in higher education and better prepares students for the multicultural world that awaits them upon graduation. Opponents argue that Affirmative Action results in reverse racism by lowering the bar for grades and test scores for underrepresented groups and by creating an admissions standard "based on racial preference rather than academic achievement." But Affirmative Action is a justified policy: it allows minorities an advantage against structural biases in the college admissions process that disproportionately benefit white students, such as legacy and athletic recruiting.

In Fisher v. The University of Texas, a white woman named Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas after being denied admission. Fisher argued that the University’s consideration of race (i.e. Affirmative Action) in its admissions process in the interest of promoting diversity in education was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court heard the case and decided in a 4–3 decision that the University’s admissions process was not in violation of the Equal Protection Clause because the University guarantees admission to the top 10 percent of every graduating high school class in Texas (for which Fisher did not qualify) and only considers race as one of a plethora of other factors for the remaining spots. 

Now Asian American students are suing Harvard through a group known as Students for Fair Admissions. Edward Blum, the president of the organization, was also involved in Fisher v. The University of Texas as the director of the organization that handled the suit on Fisher’s behalf. Students for Fair Admissions argues that Harvard discriminates against Asian-Americans by holding applicants to a higher standard and by using an ambiguous and esoteric "personal rating" which consistently rated Asian-Americans lower.  While this may not seem like a direct attack on Affirmative Action, Blum has remarked that "the cornerstone mission of this organization is to eliminate the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions.”

In 2018, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Professor Richard Sander filed a lawsuit against the University of California system, seeking data in relation to admissions outcomes. Sander suspects that the California system has begun considering race in admissions again, even though Affirmative Action was banned in the state in in 1996. Both the UCLA and Harvard cases represent a shift in the average American’s perception of Affirmative Action. Affirmative action was intended as a mechanism to even the playing field for underprivileged minorities. Now people suspect that it is tipping the scales against qualified white and Asian American students. Furthermore, the Department of Justice plans to "investigate and possibly sue colleges for admissions policies that it determines to be intentionally racially discriminatory." With public opinion shifting against race-based admissions and the Justice Department likely targeting such admissions practices, Affirmative Action's days could be numbered.

Nonetheless, Affirmative Action should remain in place. Eliminating race-based admissions jeopardizes diversity at institutions of higher education. After California abolished Affirmative Action, "minority student admissions at UC Berkeley fell 61 percent, and minority admissions at UCLA fell 36 percent."  After Texas abolished Affirmative Action for its schools, "Rice University's freshman class had 46 percent fewer African-Americans and 22 percent fewer Hispanic students." Meanwhile, Affirmative Action has doubled and in some cases tripled the number of minority applications to universities and improved community representation at those institutions.

Those who are against race-based admissions have proposed that Affirmative Action be based on an economic basis, rather than a racial basis. Economic background plays a huge role in the college application process. Children from low-income families generally attend schools with less funding and fewer resources. At such schools, they may not have access to good textbooks, state-of-the-art technology, or certain extracurriculars. These schools also might not be able to offer intellectually challenging classes. Poorer families also cannot afford services that, if taken advantage of, can give students a leg up in the admissions process, such as SAT and ACT tutors, essay readers and admissions advisers. But economic background is not the only underlying factor in the admissions process. The children attending such schools are disproportionately likely to be minorities.

There is also a huge racial gap in standardized testing. According to the Brookings Institute, the overall mean score on the math section of the SAT (at the time of writing) was 511 out of 800. The mean score for blacks was 428 out of 800 and the mean score of Latinos was 457 out of 800, while the mean score of whites was 534 out of 800 and the mean score of Asians was 598 out of 800. Furthermore, between 1996 and 2015, the achievement gap between white students and black students in SAT math has been an average of .92 standard deviations, which is a substantial indication of cross-generational racial inequality. The study also estimates that “16,000 whites and 29,570 Asians scored above a 750, compared to only at most 1,000 blacks and 2,400 Latinos.” While the case for an economic basis to Affirmative Action may at first seem convincing, proponents fail to realize that minorities face a larger disadvantage than low-income whites do.

White students also benefit disproportionately from traditional college admissions processes.  Many colleges factor legacy into their admissions; that is, children of alumni have a better chance of getting into their parents' schools over other applicants. Legacy does not compensate for economic disparity or racial discrimination. Instead, it helps motivate alumni to donate to their alma maters. Furthermore, Sander, the professor who filed the lawsuit against the University of California system, claims that legacy applicants often underperform in schools that accept them on admissions preferences other than merit. Legacy disproportionately benefits whites: according to a Wall Street Journal article written in 2003, 91 percent of the legacy applicants admitted early to the University of Virginia were white and just 1.6 percent were black. Meanwhile, 73 percent of non-legacy admits were white and only 5.6 percent were black.

Colleges also tend to recruit athletes so that they can have winning teams. In fact, recruited athletes are often granted admission before their future classmates even apply. Athletic recruitment also disproportionately benefits whites; according to a report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, "the popular notion that recruited athletes tend to come from minority and indigent families turns out to be just false; at least among the highly selective institutions, the vast bulk of recruited athletes are in sports that are rarely available to low-income, particularly urban schools." Opponents of Affirmative Action argue that minorities underperform in colleges that lowered their admissions standards to accept them; it should be noted that, according to the report, these recruited athletes generally get lower grades than other students too.

Minority students struggle disproportionately to get into college through no fault of their own. Affirmative action is a powerful policy tool which can help alleviate that discrepancy. To abolish it would be a massive blow to the hopes for higher education of young minority students. One of the key values of American culture is the equality of opportunity: all Americans should have a chance to succeed in life. If Affirmative Action seems just as unfair as the aforementioned programs, consider their differing effects: Affirmative Action increases educational diversity, while legacy admits fill institutional pockets and athletic recruitment bolsters sport reputation. Clearly, Affirmative Action has the most righteous foundation of these admissions processes and it should be protected as such.

The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 License. The original was taken by Will Hart and can be found here.

Gabrielle Meyers


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