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Affirmative Action for Whom?

By Peter Sacks — February 11, 2008 5 min read
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Whether you like affirmative action or not, it’s becoming clear that voters don’t like it. To my knowledge, no state’s voters who have confronted a ballot initiative to prohibit the state from considering race in education and jobs have defeated such a measure.

For public colleges and universities in a growing number of states, the question isn’t whether affirmative action will survive, but how much time it has to live—and what the higher education establishment will do about it.

Backed by affirmative action’s most ardent enemies, the former University of California regent Ward Connerly and the organization he heads known as the American Civil Rights Institute, ballot measures banning racial preferences have already passed in California, Washington state, and Michigan.

Now, Connerly’s group is bankrolling similar ballot measures in Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Nebraska. Connerly, who is black and who insists that considering race has no legitimacy in the public sphere, is playing the race card nonetheless. Each of the states he’s targeted for his affirmative action ban is already bitterly divided over immigration. Connerly’s side has the rhetorical advantage of absolute simplicity: The ACRI’s motto is “Race has no place in American life or law.” However wrongheaded that motto may in fact be, I’d put my money on another five wins for Connerly.

The closest that the higher education establishment gets to rhetorical simplicity has been to vaguely assert that “diversity is good.” If “diversity” is good, then homogeneity ought to be bad. It ought to be very bad in the eyes of the higher education establishment that has fought so vociferously in behalf of diversity. And that’s where higher education’s defense of affirmative action starts to crumble.

Universities could solve their diversity problem by re-engineering their admissions policies, starting with how they use the SAT.

To gauge how uninterested many of America’s leading colleges and universities are in genuine diversity, consider how homogeneous they’ve become in recent years, in terms of the economic backgrounds of the students they recruit, admit, and enroll.

Between 2004 and 2006, virtually all the richest and most highly ranked universities cut the percentage of undergraduates from lower-income families who received federal Pell Grants. These highly rated universities (at least as measured by U.S. News & World Report) were reducing their Pell Grant percentages even as their endowments—the profits of “nonprofit” corporate universities—were surging.

For example, according to a new analysis by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the University of Pennsylvania’s endowment grew by a third, to $5.3 billion, during that two-year period. And yet, the percentage of Penn students eligible for Pell Grants dropped from 12 percent, to just 8.8 percent. Northwestern University’s endowment grew by more than 40 percent, but its Pell Grant enrollment plummeted from 11.3 percent to 8.7 percent. Among the 10 wealthiest universities, only Harvard, whose endowment increased by more than 30 percent, to almost $30 billion, increased its enrollment of lower-income students (a modest 2 percentage points).

But the “most troubling” aspect of this relentlessly inverse relationship between university wealth and the economic diversity of students is the longevity of the trend, the Journal’s report finds. Whether the time frame is 23 years, 13 years, or two years, America’s richest and most highly ranked universities—and often the most aggressive ones in their defense of diversity—have been become homogeneous by social and economic class.

How has this happened? As universities, particularly private ones, have become richer, they have paid more attention to building and maintaining costly empires driven by the desire to compete in the marketplace for prestige, where academic quality is measured by an annual fashion show called “America’s Best Colleges.”

A weekly newsmagazine that claims to know a good college from a mediocre one is at the helm of this charade. In playing the rankings game, universities spend their money lavishly on “stars.” Star faculty members, star buildings, star stadiums, star coaches, and star students. The worst offenders in essence bribe students with high SAT scores to enroll at their institutions and call the aid “merit” scholarships, knowing full well that the money most often goes to affluent kids from the suburbs who have attended the best high schools. Merit has little to do with it. It’s all about the show.

And that’s the real reason America’s richest and most highly ranked universities have embraced affirmative action. They have done so not entirely out of altruism and a sense of social justice. Without affirmative action, these universities, already overwhelmingly wealthy and white, would become even more wealthy and white, which would be an embarrassing state of affairs in a diverse and democratic society.

As universities have become richer, they have paid more attention to building and maintaining costly empires driven by the desire to compete in the marketplace for prestige.

Of course, universities could solve their diversity problem by re-engineering their admissions policies, starting with how they use the SAT. They could do away with the SAT altogether—it’s not a particularly useful predictor of college performance anyway—or use it more intelligently.

One method would be to adjust the SAT scores of applicants—similar to the way the Internal Revenue Service adjusts income—to reflect the virtual certainty that factors such as family income, parent education levels, and the quality of high schools bear profoundly on a student’s SAT score. Thus, a young woman growing up in an East Los Angeles barrio who scores a 1600 on the SAT, without coaching, has really accomplished something, especially when compared with the daughter of a neurosurgeon who attended the best schools and got the best test-prep money could buy.

There are exceptions, but most universities are not solving their SAT problem. The elite universities, in particular, don’t believe it’s in their best interest to solve it. Doing so would require such universities to confront the entire U.S. News-sanctioned paradigm about merit and college quality. Fearing retribution from alumni, parents, and big-money donors, few universities have been willing to go that high road.

Instead of solving their SAT problem—and making their admissions systems both more equitable and more solidly based on a genuine, broadly defined merit system—universities have chosen a partial and inadequate solution to the diversity problem. In fact, sociologists Sigal Alon and Marta Tienda conclude in a recent issue of the American Sociological Review that the very reason universities felt compelled to provide underrepresented minorities an extra boost in the admissions process was exactly because their admissions systems had become so heavily reliant on SAT scores in recent years, fueled by the arms race for prestige and rankings.

Ultimately, Ward Connerly will win. Unless America’s best colleges and universities respond by doing something about their SAT problem and making their institutions more accessible to students from all economic classes, we all will lose.

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