Is the End Nearing for Affirmative Action at Universities?

Is affirmative action on its way out on college campuses?
While higher-ed affirmative action policies have been debated for decades, they could now be in jeopardy.
Why? Because it’s highly likely that a case filed by Abigail Fisher, a young white woman, who was rejected as an applicant at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008, ends up being reviewed by the nation’s highest court.
The last time the Supreme Court reviewed affirmative action policies on college campuses was in 2003 when a murky decision upheld the continuation of racial preferences at public universities. The vote was 5-4 in favor and since then the court has grown much more conservative.
If you want to learn more about the legal case and what’s at stake, the Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times wrote a piece on the litigation recently:

College Diversity Nears Its Last Stand

If the Supreme Court takes the case as is widely expected, we could know in June what the fate of affirmative action at public universities will be. (Affirmative action practices would not be endangered at private schools.)
Would it be a bad thing if racial preferences were narrowed or banned? I don’t think it necessarily would be. Here’s why:
I believe it is extremely important that private and state colleges and universities be able to make it easier for low-income students of all racial backgrounds to attend. Many of these poor students are minorities, but plenty of white students also fall into that category.

Income-Based Admission Preferences

It doesn’t seem fair that getting into a prestigious college or university can be easier for a poor inner-city student, who is African-American or Hispanic, than a white student, who comes from an equally impoverished background. (I’m focusing on more elite colleges here because they represent an educational lottery ticket to low-income students, who could most benefit from excellent financial aid practices and access to superior educations. The odds against any low-income students of any ethnicity gaining admission to prestigious schools with top financial aid, however, has always been low. The teenagers who enjoy the greatest advantages have always been wealthy teenagers at both public and private institutions.)

Consequences of Racial Preferences

I have seen the consequences of schools employing racial preferences rather than income favoritism when I’ve helped students at my son’s old charter high school – High Tech High. The school attracts a hugely diverse group of students from all over San Diego County. There are kids, for instance, who live in nearby million-dollar houses and other teenagers from distant neighborhoods who can barely scrape up the bus fare to get to their school every day.
When I was giving college advice to low-income students at the school, I was always relieved when they had a minority hook.  If their ethnicity wasn’t obvious, I’d just come out and ask what it was and cross my fingers that I heard the right answer. (By the way, state universities in California, because of a voter-approved proposition years ago, forbids them from taking race into consideration in admissions. California public universities, as well as those in Florida, Washington and some other states, are using financial means as one factor in admissions since racial preferences in their states have been outlawed.)
I always felt it was easier to recommend good private schools to low-income students who were minorities because I knew those schools needed to be able to say that certain percentages of their student body were black, Hispanic, Native American and even Asian. I was never as optimistic when I helped a poor white student who would have benefited from these same colleges. Poor students from Middle Eastern countries, Russia and elsewhere didn’t have that minority admission hook.

 Should Rich Minority Students Enjoy an Advantage?

What I believe is equally discouraging is the practice of schools giving admission advantages to minority students who are affluent. I know students out here in Southern California, who are thrilled that they can check off the Hispanic box on their applications to private schools even though their ties to their culture are tenuous. Some of these kids joke that the only Spanish words they know are burrito, taquito and other menu items at Taco Bell.

Bottom Line:

Low-income students of all backgrounds could use an admission advantage when applying to colleges. What do you think? If you’ve got a thought please use the comment box below.

Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. Hi. What seems missing from the affluent vs. not affluent take is that even affluent minority and female students suffer from negative pressures that majority males on average do not.
    I, for instance, grew up in an affluent nuclear family. My mom’s parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and brought with them extreme sexist views that were taught to me when I was at their house (for chores, my brother got paid and my sister and I did not because “men get paid in money, women in security”). My father, on the other hand, was very enlightened and treated us the same as far as he was conscious (but there were subtleties that he still missed, such as encouraging assertiveness in my brother while discouraging it in me and my sister.) This dichotomy raised my awareness at an early age and I’ve been noticing social signals pretty well since. I’m sure that no woman grows up in the US without some signals that damage her professionally (though I think they don’t damage us educationally.) Extrapolating from that experience and observing signals toward african-american and latino children leads me to believe that their cultural experience, whether or not they are affluent, damages their chances of educational success. Thus, some part of affirmative action belongs with race or ethnicity, not simply wealth.

  2. Great question and you make some valid points. Although I agree with your assessment that students from low-income backgrounds should be helped (and I think we can all agree that privileged students from affluent backgrounds have long received an unfair advantage in college admissions), I think you may go to far in banning all race-based considerations. Coincidentally, we just wrote an article about this topic today on our blog. If you get a chance drop by and share your thoughts. Thanks.

  3. Hello Lynn:
    We live in a time when many immigrants have the skin color to qualify as minorities but have never faced the social, political or economic disadvantages that led to affirmative action. In many cases these are savvy people who game the system, securing everything from free sports camps to scholarships. This is unfair to people of any color who have economic and other hardships. Even before college, K-12 education with its focus on rules and “best practices” favor the rich and exclude the poor of all races. I don’t think it’s all due to lack of funding either. I would like to see more emphasis on recruiting students who have potential but are experiencing obstacles. I’m impressed with Freeman’s Hrabowski’s approach at UMBC.

    1. Hi Jim,
      I agree with you. I can’t, however, fault affluent people with the “right skin color” for taking advantage of system. I would have done the same thing with my kids. I absolutely fault the schools that are cynically using their affirmative action policies for their own benefit at the expense of poor students.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. Hi Lynn,
    It seems that the elite private colleges are trying to undo the impact of decades or even centuries of exclusivity — and do it fast — with policies that make them appear, on the surface, to be very progressive and all-inclusive. It’s easier to do that (for financial reasons) by admitting wealthy blacks and Hispanics, for example, than looking at deeper socio-economic issues. As you noted, it’s helping those who don’t really need as much help — black and white.
    Of course this “new diversity” doesn’t begin to address the racial divide on these campuses, which seems to be primarily at the old east coast schools.
    I have also heard it argued that there is some merit in giving rich minority kids a break — after centuries of having college doors slammed in the faces of their parents or grandparents, why shouldn’t they get a break? Rich white kids had it made for centuries and now they want it all equal – where’s the payback, or consideration, for all those generations of advantages when there was no “equal”?
    But what this promotes now is rich vs. poor and that’s no progress at all. Maybe the answer is at some of the individual colleges. In a past blog, I think you mentioned a few that were changing admissions policies to look at economic diversity as well as racial.

    1. Hi Denise,
      Thanks for your thoughtful response to my blog post on affirmative action. I agree with you that it’s easy to look progressive by admitting wealthy minorities. By doing this, however, these institutions are dissing all the poor students whose lives would dramatically change if these schools underwrote their education. Rich kids will go to college regardless. It’s practices like this that has made me quite cynical about the higher-ed world.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy