The Noble Experiment

The Supreme Court upheld yesterday, by a 6-2 vote, Michigan’s ban on using race as a factor in college admissions. The Court’s decisions said States had the right to choose whether race should play a role in college admission.  Michigan had voted to eliminate it. Hmmm.

Affirmative Action was introduced by President John F Kennedy in 1960 by executive order. The order was intended to end racial discrimination in hiring. Over the years it spread to other sources of alleged discrimination including college admissions.

Affirmative Action, however, has pitted two strongly held American beliefs, merit (best person wins) versus discrimination (I’m qualified but you are not giving me a chance). Most Americans can accept decisions “where the better person” won. If you work hard and try your best, then you should win American thinking goes.

But how does one answer the question why so few minorities (largely African Americans, but also Hispanics and American Indians) are represented in college enrollment?

The quiet answer had been “they are simply not qualified”. Additional information such as test score biases and the unexpected fact that most minorities when admitted, complete their courses and graduate, suggest that the admission process might be suspect since the minorities demonstrated they could do the work.

The use of race in college admission is strongly supported by most universities.  Race is a sure method to assure a diverse class.   These institutions hail the “diverse” campus as a plus for all students. The impact of race based college admissions beyond the actual class demographics is much harder to pin down.

Minority applicants tend to come from poor backgrounds.  Many reason that if these less fortunate students get a break and graduate, the next generation will be able to succeed without help.  Hmmm.

Unfortunately, poverty is not on the way out in this country.   The cycle of poverty seems as secure as ever. Consequently, it is hard to see the plight of minorities getting better.  It is even harder to see how this Supreme Court decision will help.

Universities are faced with a difficult choice in the admission process. How do they determine which students can do the college work and once graduated, will go on to successful careers?  If this were not a concern, the university need only raise its tuition until there was just enough who could afford the cost. That approach would not ensure a graduation population which could succeed in life or bring credit to the school.

Another consideration is that it is difficult to cleanly separate Federal funds from any academic institution’s operation. Federal grants directly or indirectly support buildings, research, and grants/loans to worthy students. While it may seem reasonable that if Michigan residents vote to ban affirmative action in its colleges, it just makes no sense why remedies for an American issues such as poverty and racial lack of inclusion should not apply to all States?

This is a murky subject and one ready made to enliven our prejudices. If universities truly subscribe to admitting diverse classes, the burden will fall on them to alter their admission criteria.

This is much easier said than done. Which university is willing to deny admission to a qualified child of a large benefactor in order to make space for a less wealthy minority? Hmmm.

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