It has been nearly 18 years now since California voters chose to prohibit race as a determining factor in public employment and college admissions. In the years since this decision, we have seen a number of other states adopt similar measures, with many individuals making the claim that the era of necessity for affirmative action policies has ended.
A conspicuous example of this type of argumentation was at the political center stage this past month, as a challenge to Michigan’s post-secondary affirmative action ban was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court and resolved with that body stating that the prohibition of such policies is well within the purview of the state. This decision to prevent the use of race as a determining factor has been cited by some commentators as a death-blow to the practice of affirmative action in college admissions in the United States.
Now, it is probable that if you are reading this, you have an opinion regarding the practice of affirmative action, either for or against it. As for my own thoughts, I feel a certain ambivalence toward the topic, as I understand why people on each side of the fence feel as they do. That said, I have often found that those ardently opposed to affirmative action tend to ignore certain niceties of the subject and instead choose to employ visceral and often incomplete arguments.
If you were to ask anyone bluntly whether or not race should be a determining factor in college admissions — or indeed, in anything else — it is likely that the answer you would receive is “no.” Taken from the simplest perspective, this would seem to be a process which is intrinsically racist, and I can understand why individuals would oppose it. However, at its core, this is not the complete question when it comes to affirmative action. While one might frame the topic by employing the query, “Should race have an influencing role in college admissions?” another person might ask the more detailed and accurate question, “Should the government play a role in undoing the harm it has caused to marginalized groups, and should it use the public college system as a means to repair this harm?”
For those unfamiliar with the demographic details of those admitted to institutions of higher education in America, high school students coming from wealthier families tend to (perhaps unsurprisingly) achieve higher SAT scores and gain admittance to more prestigious universities. Additionally, white families tend to have disproportionately more wealth than Latino and black families. Typically, a large portion of familial wealth comes from holding property and owning a home, so that those who have achieved such ownership are usually better off.
The reason that this is relevant when discussing admissions to public colleges is that in many places in the country, government agencies have played a role in actively preventing minority groups from purchasing homes in developing middle and upper-class areas. One such example of this in California would be when the Federal Housing Authority prevented African Americans from purchasing homes in the expanding suburban market in the San Francisco Bay Area in the middle of the last century, which was done by placing restrictions on housing loans provided to black families. It is in this manner that one might make the accusation that the government itself played a part in setting up ethnic minority groups to be disadvantaged economically, and, as a result, also handicapped in terms of access to institutions of higher education.
Of course, part of the reason why many remain opposed to affirmative action in college admissions is because they assert that an institution of higher learning should be a meritocracy — that is to say, those who have worked the hardest and achieved the most should maintain a preferential status in admission to a university. This seems on the surface to be inherently fair and makes sense, since the world of academia is usually seen as inseparable from the concept of achievement and rankings. The manner in which this is often framed is that acceptance by merit is the least discriminatory method of admission, since we generally accept that the individual who has gained acceptance to a prestigious university deserves to be there.
As a white person myself, this type of merit-driven policy seems to make sense to me. This is not because it is a truly fair system (it isn’t), but rather because of the amount of effort which I had to exert to attend an institution such as UCSB. As a product of the California community college system, my transition to the UC was an arduous and protracted process, and the thought that another person could attain access with a lesser amount of work because of their skin color seems to demean the amount of effort which I put in. However, I would only feel this to be completely unjust if I believed that the public university system should be a pure meritocracy, as some might have you think it should be.
To say that the public colleges should be strict meritocracies is to ignore the role that they should play as tools of social reform and equality. The UC was started as a public good, and therefore has its origins as an institution which citizens desiring an education should be allowed access to. This is what the role of affirmative action was when public Californian colleges originally implemented it. To say that these institutions should remain as solely meritocratic is essentially the same as saying that there is nothing wrong with the status quo — that there is nothing worth changing.
In the face of a prohibition of affirmative action, there are alternative policies and practices which we might consider. In the years since Proposition 209 brought race-based admissions to a halt in California, various programs have been instituted to aid those of a low socioeconomic status in the process of applying for, gaining admission to and paying for the attendance of college. According to some commentators, this has been done in lieu of affirmative action, as marginalized groups frequently come from poorer areas. Conversely, the targeting of low income students as a means of ameliorating the underrepresentation of minorities has been called into question by others, as the two do not necessarily always correlate perfectly. Despite this, the university has not made a drastic and widespread effort to recruit those of low socioeconomic status, and has rather continually expressed its wish that race-based admissions could be reinstated. (Perhaps this would be the appropriate place to mention that the UC Board of Regents chose to ban the use of race in admissions prior to the passing of the ballot initiative, which eliminated it statewide.)
If the university will continue to be unable to use affirmative action to influence ethnic diversity on the campus, then perhaps an alternative would be for it to commit itself to further achievement of socioeconomic diversity among the student populace. If the University of California is to ever become a true institution of the state’s citizenry — a public trust and a means of allowing equal access to higher education — then some sort of change must be brought about.
In looking forward to the future of American higher education as a whole, one should contemplate whether the recent court ruling is really a step in the right direction. As the cost of attending college is increasing, those most disproportionately affected are the individuals already having difficulty receiving a post-secondary education. Though the arguments of those opposed to affirmative action may seem to have weight behind them, the significance of these arguments seems to disappear once you consider that adhering to this perspective will not solve any of the social and educational ills which our communities are suffering from.
Jonathan Rogers thinks it’s time for us as a people to start making some changes (RIP ’Pac).
Treating admission as a meritocracy is perfectly fine if you admit that someone in a poor community had to work a good bit harder to reach the same level of quantitative achievement as someone in a middle or upper class community. Their qualitative achievement is obviously much higher so they should get preference.