Last year the Federal Appeals Court
found the University of Michigan’s use of race as one
factor in student admissions to be constitutional. This case
is now under review by the Supreme Court, reopening the twenty-five
year old Bakke decision on the use of affirmative action
in college admissions.
In an ideal society all students would compete equally, and
admissions would be based on past performance and future potential.
(Just how this would be measured is debatable.) While our society
is among the best on earth, it is far from ideal. This is particularly
true with regard to educational quality and equality. One glaring
shortfall is the difference in the education provided to mostly
White, suburban children, and to mostly Black and Hispanic,
inner city children. One of the effects of this disparity is
that many minority applicants have difficulty competing for
college admission on the basis of grades and test scores alone.
In order to compensate for this, many colleges have adopted
a policy of affirmative action. But, what should affirmative
action include? Should it just involve outreach and counseling?
It clearly should include the elimination of racial, and other,
bias from tests. Does it mean scholarships should be provided
for those in need? Should colleges provide remedial programs?
Should different standards be applied to minorities than to
White and Asian applicants? Does it include setting aside a
fixed number of places for minority students (quotas)? As we
go down this list we move from broad public support to increasing
Discrimination in entrance requirements
has a long history in America’s colleges. If you are
the child of alumni, especially one who contributes heavily
or has political influence, you may expect relaxed entrance
standards. (George W. Bush is a noteworthy example.) If you
are an outstanding athlete, your grades and test scores need
not be very good. If you come from a foreign country, small
town or a rural area your chances of acceptance will be better
than that of city kids with equivalent credentials. (After
all, it is argued, we need student diversity.) While the
public has accepted these special considerations, when it
comes to race, many are prepared to draw the line.
Until we fix our inner city primary
and secondary schools, we need affirmative action to provide
minority kids a fairer opportunity for a college education.
Ironically, equality in this case means special consideration.
Anything else would be hypocrisy. Admittedly, race is an
imperfect measure of reduced educational opportunity and
quality. Some minority children go to excellent schools,
but these are the exceptions. Unfortunately, for the most
part, race and poor school quality are closely correlated.
Race, therefore, serves as a practical substitute for evaluating
each applicant’s school history. As Berkeley
and UCLA show, the elimination of race as an entrance consideration
means reduced minority acceptances. In the University of Michigan
case the use of race, as one factor in admissions seems fair
and workable. Let’s hope the Supreme Court agrees.#