Last week the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state of Michigan, whose voters recently passed legislation barring the use of racial or gender preferences in public university admissions. Since the advent of the term “affirmative action” in the 1960s, there has been a steady erosion of support for policies that use race as a factor to help minorities gain greater access to higher education. While I am not qualified to question the constitutionality of the Supreme Court decision, I do feel that affirmative action has been a necessary and successful way to help minorities achieve equity with whites.
Since 1976, the percentage of minorities in American colleges and universities has increased. From 1976-2011, Hispanic enrollment in higher education increased from 4 to 14 percent; Asian/Pacific Islanders from 2 to 6 percent; blacks from 10-15 percent; and Native Americans from .7 to .9 percent. (National Council of Education Statistics) At least part of this increase has been due to more aggressive policies on the part of university administrators to diversify their student bodies.
Yet whites, especially white males, have cried foul. They object to what they see as the injustice of minorities taking spots in top universities despite lower test scores and inferior credentials. The problem with this argument is that there are thousands of highly qualified candidates competing for enrollment in schools such as the University of Michigan. In 2013, only 33% of the 46,813 high school seniors who applied were accepted at UM. (NCES) Clearly, universities must use criteria other than test scores or GPAs to make admissions decisions.
The question then is what other factors should come into play? Activities? Participation in extracurricular activities often unfairly disadvantages minorities or lower income applicants. Many of the tools colleges use in admitting students are subjective, including teacher recommendations, essays, and in some cases nebulous characteristics such as “character.” Fairness has little to do with it.
The case of Kwasi Enin highlights the prejudices our society still harbors about minority students and their place in higher education. Enin was admitted to all 8 Ivy League schools, a rare feat that impressed many and with good reason. He scored in the 99th percentile on his SATs, was in the top 2 percent of his high school class, is a musician, and volunteered at a local hospital while in high school. Yet naysayers were quick to assume that his race was the deciding factor in his acceptances. And even if his race did help him in getting admitted to some of these schools, what of it? I never hear people complain when someone gets into Harvard or Yale because a parent or grandparent went there.
According to the Harvard Gazette, in 2012 there were 34,302 applicants and only 5.9% of those applicants were admitted. More than 14,000 of the applicants scored 700 or above on the SAT in math, and more than 17,000 scored 700 or above in writing. Furthermore, graduation rates of first-time freshmen at Harvard are in the 90s (NCES), clearly demonstrating that the students who are admitted are more than capable of achieving success in college.
I also find it interesting that white males don’t complain about affirmative action for males, which has become commonplace in recent times due to their higher dropout rate. A recent story on usatoday.com stated that the US Department of Education estimates that 57% of current college students are female and that “colleges are struggling to keep male/female ratios even.” Indeed, a college administrator with whom I am acquainted has said that his school does try to admit more males than females to retain gender balance. Where is the hue and cry?
I would love to live in a color-blind world in which people were judged, in the words of the great Martin Luther King, Jr., “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Until then, we as a society need to recognize and address the inequities that impede the achievement of our fellow human beings. In the end, we will all be the richer for it.