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