Affirmative action in college admissions: Are admissions ever fair, given the range of exceptions?

This week, the AJC ran an op-ed by Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez on the affirmative action case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court will hear arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin next week.

The Sanchez column prompted Mark Bauerlein of Emory University to offer up a counter view. Both are below.

The Supreme Court last addressed race in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision. In a 5-4 vote, the court upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School, saying that the Constitution “does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

In Fisher v. Texas, the court is considering the claim of a white student who said she lost a seat at the University of Texas at Austin because of her race. Under the “Talented 10″ policy in Texas, students in the top 10 percent of any Texas high school are assured admittance to any state institution of higher learning. Abigail Fisher was not among the top 10 percent of her class but argues that she would have merited admission in the general applicant pool had it not been for racial preferences.

A key point to consider: Are college admissions ever fair? Colleges often lower their standards for the children of big donors or children of prominent alums. Exceptions can be made for a variety of reasons, including athletic prowess, unique talents and geography. If state flagship campuses did not consider geographic diversity, even more of their students would hail from the same wealthy suburbs.

Back to the Fisher case. Here are two points of view on it:

First, Sanchez, who wrote:

Texas automatically accepts the top 10 percent of each of its high schools’ graduating classes.

Abigail Fisher didn’t make the 10 percent cut. Nor was she admitted based on other criteria. She sued, arguing she was denied admission because of her race. Fisher and her lawyers are in effect alleging that she was more deserving than at least one nonwhite student admitted to the university. Indeed, the subtext of the backlash against affirmative action and “diversity” is that the white student is always more deserving.

But what do we mean by “deserving”? Colleges often weigh race-neutral factors such as socio-economic status, whether a student is the first in their family to attend college, or whether the family moved often during the student’s formative years. Low-income white students from rural areas often benefit equally from such considerations.

How should an admissions committee weigh the academic potential of a child who took tough college-prep coursework and earned a 3.5 GPA against the student who worked a part-time job throughout high school, managed a 3.0 GPA in semi-rigorous school work, did community service and also lettered in one sport? Who “deserves” the slot more?

America’s public colleges and universities, after all, are simply reflections of the quality of the nation’s school districts. Hispanic, black and Native American students statistically fare worse in elementary and secondary schools, and are often racially isolated in low-income areas. No Child Left Behind has made that case clear with endless data on standardized test performance.

Those same minority students also make up 39 percent of the current K-12 population. They are a large proportion of the future workforce, and the pressing problem we face is extending educational opportunities to them. Affirmative action was meant to be a way to right old wrongs. “Diversity” is a more recent rationale.

An interesting footnote is that the man credited with coining the slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is also known as the father of affirmative action. Arthur Fletcher was a Republican who served under Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He decried the divisive attitudes that came to surround affirmative action. Fletcher simply wanted to address the inequities that resulted from generations of legalized segregation and accepted discrimination. He helped fund the famous Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. Segregation ended, but the inequities persist.

Now, here is the view of  Mark Bauerlein, Emory professor and author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.”

Mary Sanchez’ column on affirmative action in college admissions makes the same factual error that many defenders of the policy make. She says that minority students “are a large proportion of the future workforce, and the pressing problem we face is extending educational opportunities to them.”

The fact is that eliminating race-based admissions criteria will not curtail educational opportunities for minority students one bit. To believe it is to subscribe to what’s called the “Yale or jail” argument — that somehow if the selective institutions can’t do it, those students will fall out of the system entirely.

In truth, what will happen is that minority students will fall one or two rungs down the institutional ladder, from Tier 1 to Tier 2, etc. And since the majority of students in the United States attend non-selective institutions, things there won’t change at all.

Furthermore, in the area of selective institutions, recent research filed in support of Amy Fisher shows that when minority students attend schools in which they have to compete with students who have earned higher grades and scores they gravitate out of competitive fields such as pre-med and engineering.

In this case, affirmative action does precisely what Ms. Sanchez bemoans — curtailing educational opportunities.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

97 comments Add your comment

RCB

October 5th, 2012
1:38 pm

Atlanta Mom, the SAT score is only one of many deciding factors. If you score poorly on the SAT, then your application should be full of other criteria to get you admitted if you deserve to be. Although I probably could have afforded SAT prep courses if I cut somewhere else, we didn’t offer those to our children. We bought them a book and told them to study and practice. They worked for months before the test on a daily basis and they did just fine. A little hard work goes a long way, rich or poor.

Halftrack

October 5th, 2012
1:44 pm

Affirmative Action is government sponsored discrimination. Discrimination today is different than it was in the 1950’s and 60″s. Since that time black & white have basically have had equal opportunity to fail. Only southern states are penalized by affirmative action as the northern states get a free ride for their past discriminations because of race. Why did the North not have any busing to equalize their schools or business factories, etc.? Most students now are near an equal state of preparedness for college. Affirmative Action should be better based. A college should have a number of students it will accept and if a diversity is shot for; then this number should be posted and made transparent for all applicants to know ahead of applying.

jarvis

October 5th, 2012
1:53 pm

@Halftrack, I’ve also wondered why a public school doesn’t have to post acceptance criteria publically.

Maude

October 5th, 2012
2:12 pm

Applicants should not be asked to provide their race on the applications. The only thing they should have to prove is that they are a legal citizen of the United States. Their grades should be the only thing that is looked at. The legal citizens with the highest scores should be allow to attend.

Just A Teacher

October 5th, 2012
2:19 pm

I don’t believe in Affirmative Action in any way, shape, or form. I believe it is racial discrimination. I teach in a predominately African American high school and teach my students that they are individuals. To define a person’s worth or ability based on the color of his / her skin is simply wrong. In my world (and my class), people are evaluated on their merit and nothing else. Universities should be the same way. Lest we forget, Affirmative Action also gives women an unfair advantage over men based on past inequality. I am opposed to that, as well. There was probably a time for these preferential policies in education and employment, but that time is long gone.

BuckeyeInGa

October 5th, 2012
2:31 pm

Doesn’t affirmative action benefit white women as well?

BuckeyeInGa

October 5th, 2012
2:33 pm

Executive Order 11246

EEO and Affirmative Action Guidelines for Federal Contractors Regarding Race, Color, Gender, Religion, and National Origin

williebkind

October 5th, 2012
2:58 pm

Just A Teacher

October 5th, 2012
2:19 pm

That is where I stand.

bootney farnsworth

October 5th, 2012
3:02 pm

so when does affirmative action hit the sports programs?

x amount of white kids, yellow kids, and handicapped kids per team

williebkind

October 5th, 2012
3:04 pm

BuckeyeInGa

October 5th, 2012
2:33 pm
That is for federal contractors. Those are employers who are doing business with federal dollars in the pot. However, affirmative action laws affect the small business owners through means of lawsuits and watchdogs.

bootney farnsworth

October 5th, 2012
3:06 pm

something I am curious about: when will enough be enough?

we have the most fully integrated society ever, and yet that’s still not enough.
when, if ever, are we gonna allow/require people to stand on their own merits?

supposedly around 2050, white people will be a plurality, but not the majority in this nation.
if true, will affirmative action focus on making sure white folks get their “fair share”?
somehow I doubt it.

bootney farnsworth

October 5th, 2012
3:08 pm

something I’ve noticed since I was laid off.

almost every application I fill out wants to know – very early on -if I am hispanic or “other”.

williebkind

October 5th, 2012
3:09 pm

“they gravitate out of competitive fields such as pre-med and engineering”

Yepper give me heart surgery with a heart designed by affirmative action doctors and engineers. I will live forever because right is on my side.

bootney farnsworth

October 5th, 2012
3:10 pm

its been interesting to see Romey’s 47% theory played out in real life on this blog.

williebkind

October 5th, 2012
3:11 pm

“almost every application I fill out wants to know – very early on -if I am hispanic or “other”.”

I love those jobs that require an American citizen to speak spanish. Why dont the jobs require the spanish to speak English?

bootney farnsworth

October 5th, 2012
3:15 pm

that would be insensitive

Just Sayin.....

October 5th, 2012
3:17 pm

Doesn’t affirmative action benefit white women as well?

Affirmative action benefits everyone except white males. Amazingly, white males are not even a majority anymore (women outnumber men in college), but are still the boogeyman that allow racial discrimination ( affirmative action) to continue to exist.

Let me be clear: Men are now a MINORITY in college, but discrimination against men is still allowed. Women, who are the majority, still get a minority label due to past discrimination.

bootney farnsworth

October 5th, 2012
3:18 pm

when is the last time anyone saw an application encouraging white men to apply?

Digger

October 5th, 2012
3:22 pm

We now discriminate against intelligence. It’s one reason this country is spinning round and round in the toilet.

Solutions

October 5th, 2012
3:31 pm

The word “divesity” does not appear even one time in the entire Constitution of the United States, yet the entire higher educational establishment is being sacrificed upon this so call alter of diversity. When you can no longer rely on Harvard Law School to produce graduates with IQ’s of 130 or higher, you know the college sorting machine is breaking down. Compare the performance of Mitt Romney (he has an earned degree from Harvard and an IQ of 140+) vs the performance of B. Obama (he has a “special” degree from Harvard and a computed IQ of 110) in the recent debates. One performed as a well educated professional, the other as an average IQ wanna be. We can forget the college degree as an indicator of intelligence and ability to perform, and it is all because of this fake concept called “diversity.” You want mickey mouse college degrees, now you have them, and they are worthless.

Teacher

October 5th, 2012
3:46 pm

@halftrack,

Do you just invent history? Northern states have had bussing and affirmative action programs. Please keep your ignorant assertions to yourself so that you don’t spread your lack of education.

Teacher

October 5th, 2012
3:48 pm

@Just sayin,

Based on your statement, can you explain why women, on average, are paid a lower wage for the same work? Is this the minority of men being oppressed with the burden of money and power?

Grumps

October 5th, 2012
3:49 pm

UGA and Tech are both pretty selective. However, Georgia Perimeter (formerly Dekalb College) has a guaranteed transfer program — Guaranteed! — to any school in the Georgia University system, Including Tech and UGA. Other schools outside the state include Auburn and Alabama. There are 47 schools — I think.

You get the grades, you take the Georgia core curriculum, you get in after 60 or so hours. With that program and the HOPE scholarship, nobody has to do without a top notch education if they are capable and if they do the work.

See http://depts.gpc.edu/tag/

Teacher

October 5th, 2012
3:56 pm

Have any of you read in of the briefs in many of the recent affirmative action cases? The argument for a diverse academic community is not for fairness or to make up for past wrongs. It’s to create a better learning community. As much as many of you would like to deny it, we live in a diverse world. If we go by the belief, as flawed as it might be, that college should prepare people for “the real world,” then we need a diverse environment to study in. Have you ever watched a group of white students discuss the implications of the word”nigger” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or a group of boys discuss The Bell Jar? It doesn’t work. Our race, our religion, our sex, and our socioeconomic conditions are part of who we are, and a part of the people around. We need this diversity on a college campus to create educated students, and thus a capable workforce. Do not lose track of the purpose of affirmative action in thinly veiled racist and sexist attacks from people with a chip on their shoulders. Our university deserve better than that.

Grumps

October 5th, 2012
4:01 pm

@Teacher 3:48

The latest studies I saw regarding women in the workforce concluded tangible factors – women as a group tend to take years out of their careers for childraising, for example — accounted for much of the gap.

And don’t go typecasting me. I’m not a conservative and I’m not a liberal. I’d be a libertarian, but they have too many rules.

I know and respect many very successful women attorneys, doctors, business executives — hell, my current boss is a woman and is probably the best manager I’ve worked for in 40 years. All of them are smart as hell and work their butts off.. just like the successful men I know.

bootney farnsworth

October 5th, 2012
4:10 pm

@ teacher

can you provide links to current studies which support your claims about unequal wages?
especially dealing with the wages of women under 40. I’ll grant some older women may well have
lower wages since they entered the workforce at a very different time.

bootney farnsworth

October 5th, 2012
4:14 pm

it would be interesting to study the list of 282 at GPC who were laid off, to see if those cuts were “proportional” to race and gender.

Just Sayin.....

October 5th, 2012
4:21 pm

@Teacher

My comments were with regard to THIS topic: affirmative action in college. If you dispute my statement, show some facts that women are outnumbered by men in college. I won’t play your nonsensical game of changing the topic to employment when I wrote on higher education. The two are apples and oranges. THIS column deals with education. Your attempt to change the subject shows that you know you are in the wrong. Let me be clear: white men are a college MINORITY. Maybe not a minority as defined by Affirmative Action programs, but a minority in actual, real numbers. If you dispute this, show some facts. But don’t try to change the subject in an attempt to divert attention from the facts.

hryder

October 5th, 2012
4:35 pm

W Bush earned a higher GPA at Yale than J Kerry and Obama was a racial diversity transfer into the Ivy League yet both went on to become President. Neither should have been in their alma maters except for blatant preferences that had nothing directly attributable to academic success. How did this occur? The Ivies are private institutions. No state supported institution in the USA should legally be permitted to discriminate in such a fashion. Additionally, no athlete or any other special skill applicant should receive admission to a college/university unless they meet the identical academic criteria required of all other entering students. The truth is that it is your effort following your departure from the collegiate life which will determine your perceived success or failure by others as well as yourself.

Teacher

October 5th, 2012
6:28 pm

@hryder

I agree that public institutions shouldn’t discriminate. Since the number one predictor for the SAT and AP exams is socioeconomic status, isn’t using these scores as a gauge for admission discriminating against those living in poverty? Doesn’t this make UT’s 10 percent rule a perfect way to decide admission?

Another comment

October 5th, 2012
7:01 pm

Since, I and all the cousins on my mother’s family come from a first generation immigrant family, we were the first generation to attend and graduate from college. Several of us have gone on to do very well. One of my cousin’s is a very well off Dr. in North Carolina, but due to our family having gone to Catholic School for Elementary School, then to the Public High School. He went to Allegany College in Penn. for Undergraduate, then Med. School at Univ. of Rochester in New York. Did a Residency in Boston. Ended up in Spartenburg at a Hospital, then up in Ashville, then up in the N.C. Mountains and is now in Winston Salem.

His own son went to Wake Forrest. But could not get the Alumni Advantage into the Wake Forrest Medical School, Duke or Numerious other Medical Schools in the South he applied to. Even though my cousin makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a years, and would pay full freight tuition in cash. His son had to take a year off and do a Masters of Public Health at Georgetown. Do a Volunteer Stint in Africa with Doctors without Border’s assisting for several months. He finally was accepted into Wake Forrest’s Medical School starting this past September. It is a real shame, because my family has no Southern School routes. His father a Doctor, didn’t go to any of these Private name schools. But then his father is a doctor, he is not a minority, so that all works against him. At least my cousin like me had the first in family to get a degree help. My daughter will use her Native American blood from her father to help her. You should see the information she gets from the minority offices being Native America ( Thank you Ancestor Green for your native American wife up in Western Carolina).

Lee

October 5th, 2012
8:42 pm

A commentary about Patrick Chavis, the black student who was admitted into medical school ahead of a more academically qualified white student. Whatever happened to the “poster child of affirmative action” you ask. Well, “In 1997, the Medical Board of California suspended Chavis’ license, warning of his “inability to perform some of the most basic duties required of a physician.”" Of course, that was after someone died due to his gross negligence.

http://townhall.com/columnists/michellemalkin/2002/08/07/the_life_and_death_of_patrick_chavis

Statistically speaking, 50% of the doctors graduated in the bottom half of their class. With affirmative action, you really have to wonder how bad that bottom half really is.

If I’m laying on a table with someone’s hands in my chest, I think I would prefer that doctor to be in the top of his class, not some affirmative action token who doesn’t know the difference between a suture and a suppository.

SEE

October 5th, 2012
8:42 pm

A recent study showed that white students from poor backgrounds are actually disadvantaged when it comes to admissions. Colleges like give preference to black or hispanic students from poor backgrounds…so they can check off both a race and low socio-economic status in their “diversity” quotas.

http://www.mindingthecampus.com/originals/2010/07/how_diversity_punishes_asians.html

RCB

October 5th, 2012
9:52 pm

I don’t think poor SAT scores have anything to do with being poor or disadvantaged. Your socioeconomic status probably dictates how seriously you study or how hard you work. YOU can change that, no one else. There are many smaller colleges in Georgia that offer an excellent education and may not be as difficult to get into as GA and Tech–at least for 2 years.

Teacher

October 5th, 2012
11:02 pm

@RCB You dont have to “think” anything. Apparently you dont “think” much. Socioeconomic condition IS the number one predictor of SAT success. This isn’t even an arguable topic.

SEE

October 6th, 2012
8:09 am

Then why do Asians, as a group, perform very well on the SAT regardless of their socio-economic status? It’s a fact that can be checked. Asians great academic performance actually works against them for admissions. If you are Asian, you will need to perform better than blacks or whites to get into the university of your choice. Colleges run after that “diversity” quota which requires they turn away many more deserving Asians because they don’t want an “over-representation of that group. If we are a global economy, then we better start thinking globally! Japan, South Korea, China, etc. all recruit their brightest from whereever they come from, without thought to socio-economic or minority status. Will the US be prepared to compete?

bu2

October 6th, 2012
9:02 am

@Teacher
Not saying you are wrong, but do you have any links supporting your assertion? If you are going to say its not arguable, you should be able to explain that belief. And if you are correct, there’s still the question of how significant an indicator it is.

RCB

October 6th, 2012
11:42 am

@Teacher–getting personal, are we? Just because you say it is so does not make it true. You may BELIEVE what you’re saying, but it just sounds like another excuse for someone not doing the hard work required. What an insult to insinuate that poor students can’t achieve through hard work. It’s not a label you have to carry your entire life. You can keep making excuses though if you want to.

Lee

October 6th, 2012
12:00 pm

“Socioeconomic condition IS the number one predictor of SAT success. This isn’t even an arguable topic.

Yes, there is a strong correlation between poverty and poor performance on the SAT. But it is not the CAUSE of poor performance. Big difference.

There are plenty of anecdotal stories about poor kids who overcome all obstacles to score high on the SAT, attend college, and achieve great things. Conversely, there are plenty of anecdotal stories of rich kids who fall flat on their face.

But, I cannot think of a single story about a kid with an IQ of 80 who aced the SAT and went on to become a doctor or scientist or engineer, etc.

Let’s face it, the folks who are living in Section 8 housing, filling our prisons, and drawing welfare checks are not Mensa Members.

As to the SAT/ACT, these are little more than glorified IQ exams and the statistically valid results of which will always follow the IQ hierarchy – Asian/White/Hispanic/Black.

And yes, y’all can argue about that all day, but it doesn’t change the reality.

Ole Guy

October 6th, 2012
2:21 pm

Yestidy, I cudent speil colij stoodint…today, I are wun…

RCB

October 6th, 2012
2:58 pm

I also believe as Lee does that the SAT is little more than a glorified IQ exam. To me, the ACT is a little different, according to my 2 kids. They didn’t even have the ACT when I was in school. It was the SAT or nothing. I know a lot of kids who have aced an SAT, but can’t/won’t succeed in the real world. If you work hard, you WILL succeed.

catlady

October 6th, 2012
3:47 pm

RCB, how old are you? The ACT was in place way before 1970. I took it in 1969. It is a SKILL test, not an IQ test, or even an aptitude test. It looks at skills you have mastered that should lead to success in college.

Many folks had not heard of it, for various reasons. I was looking at some schools that wanted the ACT, and my verbal/reading skills were a little stronger than math, so I took it. Turns out, my ACt/SAT were pretty equal. (32/1300 on 1600 range) Here in Georgia, most schools wanted the SAT.

For my older two children, with similiar skills, the ACT was the better measure. For my highly quantitative daughter, the SAT, with 1/2 being math, made better sense.

RCB

October 6th, 2012
8:22 pm

Catlady, I’m in my early 60’s. I went to a VERY rural high school (class of 105), so if the ACT was available, we had never heard of it. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know anything about the SAT when I took it in the 60’s. My elder daughter told me she felt like she did better on the ACT because It tested more of what she had already learned, which made sense to me. Both of my kids took the SAT and ACT and did better in the latter for some reason. The colleges they attended, however, required the SAT. I know–I’m old compared to most of you. Ha, ha!

OTOH

October 6th, 2012
11:29 pm

“Yet people are outraged when we consider exceptions for students who legitimately did not have access to the same education as those who grew up in middle class suburbs.” Herein lies the rub. While wanting to give these disadvantaged students a leg up, the proponents of this argument forget their own evidence. These children did not receive the education that would prepare them for the schools the proponents want them to attend. What good does that do for those students? Admitting them does not prepare them and it does not give them a good chance of succeeding no matter how much we want it to.

OTOH

October 6th, 2012
11:52 pm

I do not know Abigail Fisher’s qualifications for college, but I do know that the top 10 % of one school can be vastly different than that of another. Remember that one of the arguments for AA is that the disadvantaged students did not receive as good an education as did the students they are competing with. 10% of my HS class was 3.9 students. 5 graduated with 5.0 grade point averages. Should that 5th classmate of mine have a harder time getting admitted to a state school than the student ranked 49th out of 500 at Disadvantaged County High where no one made a 5.0?

bu2

October 7th, 2012
12:59 pm

The 10% rule is not being challenged.

The issue is using race as a factor for those who do not get in otherwise.

YALLOweMe

October 8th, 2012
9:59 am

IQ, IQ, IQ… Whether you want to believe it or not. People of different genetic compositions have different IQ power. Yes, there are some exceptions, and that’s where we need to ensure against discrimination. Other than that, race should NOT be a factor in college admissions.