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Adios affirmative action
Affirmative action in education appears on the way out, if the tenor of questions during recent oral arguments before the Supreme Court is any guide. The ruling presumably will appear at the end of the court's current session next June, meaning that the college classes accepted for admission in August or September will be the last to be affected by affirmative action in its present guise.
Much has been said on both sides of the debate. But a few things have not been said or not said very often..
First, for all the energy and media attention the issue has consumed, affirmative action in education affects a small proportion of students. Affirmative action applies chiefly to competitively selective colleges and universities, which constitute a minority of institutions of higher education in America. And most community colleges, the gateway to higher ed for millions of students, are not selective at all. Whether too many or too few black students, Asian students or students of other groups affected by affirmative action get into Harvard or the University of North Carolina is important to them of course, but for the country as a whole it's mostly a matter of symbolism.
And that symbolism has little to do with education per se. Because colleges and universities stoutly resist anything that looks like exit exams, it’s very difficult to tell what students have learned in their college experience. As a professor myself, I certainly hope my students learn something. But I have little confidence I can accurately say what that is.
And I have no confidence that Harvard or UNC—or the University of Texas at Austin, where I teach—provides a better education than many less selective schools. Admission to selective colleges affords entree to a social and economic club. This may or may not be a good thing for an individual. Networking has advantages. But other advantages, perhaps more important, accrue to those for whom success has to be achieved from outside the club. For decades, the City College of New York was where smart Jewish kids from New York who were kept out of the Ivy League by informal quotas and lack of family wealth went, and where they learned to outperform their posher age peers. Black colleges did the same for African American kids.
The demise of affirmative action might, just possibly, have a long delayed positive effect on elementary and secondary schools. A major reason minority students have required a helping thumb on the college admissions scale is that their schools haven't prepared them to compete successfully with students who attended better-off schools. If colleges can’t rely on the crutch of affirmative action to produce the diversity they desire, they might get serious about helping out with improving k-12 education.
The state of Texas has adopted a policy that obviates most of the need for affirmative action as such. The University of Texas and Texas A&M systems apply a ten-percent rule, guaranteeing graduates of Texas high schools who are in the top ten percent of their graduating classes admission to UT or A&M. In practice, this promise is somewhat less than it seems. At UT Austin, the specified ten percent has been whittled down to six or seven percent in recent years, given the popularity of that campus. The full ten percent applies only to the systems as a whole.
Even so, it produces a certain amount of racial diversity without explicitly mentioning race. Yet the unspoken secret of the policy is that for it to produce diversity, the high schools have to remain effectively segregated. Ten-percent students from certain high schools in Dallas and Houston are most likely black students, and ten-percent students from certain schools in San Antonio, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley are most likely Hispanic. Should those schools become more diverse, UT and A&M would become less diverse, under the current regime.
The beneficiaries of affirmative action are, first, the institutions that are expending such effort to defend the policy. It affords them a shortcut to the diversity they say they desire.
Whether affirmative action benefits the students who are admitted under its auspices is for them to say. Many have said that any benefit comes with a cost: the presumption that they would not have been admitted without it. This presumption is especially pernicious and unfair to those who would have been admitted without affirmative action.
If affirmative action, already a half-century old, somehow survives the scrutiny of the current court, it will become effectively permanent. And it will effectively write into constitutional law the presumption that black students can’t compete on an equal footing with other students. Nothing could be more corrosive to the ambitions of the very people affirmative action is supposed to benefit.
And nothing could be more ironic, historically. White supremacists have said all along that blacks can’t compete with whites. For the laws of the United States to say the same thing is not what the civil rights pioneers of the twentieth century risked—and in some cases gave—their lives for.