Affirmative action in college and university admissions: Yes
National Forum; Baton Rouge; Winter 1999; Martin Michaelson;

Volume: 79
Issue: 1
Start Page: 36-39
ISSN: 01621831
Subject Terms: Affirmative action
Education policy
College admissions
Michaelson argues that affirmative action in college admissions is sound policy. He cites studies in support of affirmative action.

Full Text:
Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Winter 1999
As a journeyman lawyer, who on a good day sits at the feet of the likes of Derek Bok, William Bowen, and Ronald Dworkin, I perhaps have no business addressing here the question of why affirmative action in admissions is sound policy. The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton University Press, 1998)[see review on p. 47 -Ed.], Bowen and Bok's analysis, is empirical and erudite. Dworkin's essays in The New York Review of Books ("Affirming Affirmative Action," October 22, 1998; "Is Affirmative Action Doomed?", November 5, 1998) meticulously appraise the arguments and pertinent jurisprudence. These works go far toward remedying the long-felt need for stronger scholarship in this touchy field.

Until these and a handful of other carefully reasoned publications came forward, few issues under broad public discussion were characterized by a less illuminating ratio of heat to light than this one. Strident polemic drowned out more thoughtful voices.

Several reasons seem plain. A college degree has become for most Americans, perhaps to an unprecedented extent, the sine qua non of upward economic mobility. Census data show the surprisingly large amount by which average annual incomes of bachelors-degree holders exceed incomes even of those who attended college but did not graduate. Competition for admission to the most prestigious colleges, many of whose graduates occupy envied positions, has grown more rivalrous. Rejection from these top institutions can be painful, not least to parents who want the world for their children. No great imagination is needed to see why blacks and other minorities are blamed when moderately well-- qualified white daughters and sons are denied entry to the elite college that is their first choice. Also, statements of federal officials during the Reagan and Bush administrations - as well as litigation brought by conservative groups, Proposition 209 in California, Initiative 200 in Washington State, legislation proposed in Congress, and other political developments - have contributed to the impression that white students are being unjustly barred from college.


Yet the noise this issue generates should not, as a factual matter, be mainly attributable to exclusion of white applicants. True, the most selective institutions were virtually lily-white until the 1950s, and no longer are. Harvard's dormitories were effectively segregated until World War II, and the private college that was most integrated before 1950 (Oberlin, which had a practice of race sensitivity dating to the Underground Railroad) found itself unable to sustain a four percent participation rate for blacks. But affirmative action in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s has hardly turned the institutions upside down. Even at the twenty-eight top-tier colleges and universities whose racial demographics Bowen and Bok studied, the foreclosure - if that is the right word - attributable to affirmative action is a small fraction of enrollments. Most college students today, as in prior years, attend institutions where all or nearly all qualified applicants are admitted and where race and ethnicity do not figure in admissions decisions.

Further, those selective colleges and universities that do take into account the race and ethnicity of historically underrepresented minority applicants ordinarily assign greater and more dispositive weight to all applicants' scores, grades, and extracurricular achievements. The effect, in statistical terms, of race- and ethnicity-targeted admissions policies on the probability that a prototypical white applicant will be admitted to one of these selective institutions is virtually negligible. Elimination of the programs would increase the white applicant's probability of admission, which is about 25 percent, only to about 26.5 percent, according to extensive data available to Bowen and Bok.

Is this, then, really a debate about opportunity? By numerous measurements, opportunity for white persons in the United States today far exceeds that for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. The gaping disparity between college graduation rates of whites and members of those groups has been increasing, not decreasing, and is projected to widen, not narrow. Whites continue to make much more money on average than do those minorities. Whites still occupy federal, state, and local public office in disproportion to their numbers. And whites dominate, also disproportionately, every profession and occupation accorded status, except professional sports (where whites control management) and, to the extent so regarded, the enlisted military ranks. There is no serious argument that affirmative-action programs of the limited type now administered by the institutions of higher education that have them will reverse white domination in our lifetimes, if ever.


If the effects of these programs on whites are in fact relatively slight, as they appear to be, and if those effects do not threaten the preponderant authority of whites in a society where that always has been basic, what accounts for so much outcry by opponents of these temperate policies? One possible answer is that the programs offer a case study for some in the majority to claim rhetorically, after all these years, the moral high ground in a matter of race. It is not easy for whites in America to find a pretext for victimization; here one is. The programs supply some minority group members a case study as well. Here they can propound a different rhetoric, in which their victimization is traced to social engineering by a patronizing white intellectual aristocracy. Nor should we gainsay the rhetorical excesses of some affirmative action advocates.

Much of the rhetoric of the argument over affirmative action in admissions is simplistic, inflammatory, and unsatisfying. Shall university policies be "color-blind" or "race=conscious"? Do we favor "merit" or "preferences"? These and similar buzzwords, in the context of this issue, have no self-evident, commonly shared, or full definition.

Thus, for example, proponents of "color blindness" surely do not mean that in the conduct of dayto-day affairs we are or have practicable means to become oblivious to the race and ethnicity of all persons with whom we have contact. Nor can thoughtful supporters of an exclusive attention to "merit" seriously believe that any person's qualifications are fully expressed in a standardized test score, high school grades, and musical, athletic, or other skill; our merit as human beings is of course to some degree informed by how well we have played the hand life dealt us, how far we have come. Also, to be meaningful, merit must conduce to its object. If diversity of the student body is a legitimate interest of a college - a proposition against which few today contend - then an applicant's advancement of that interest must be at least germane to merit for admission. (How odd it would be for a college to recruit for geographic, cultural, religious, and other student diversity, yet omit race and ethnicity, forms of diversity emblematic of both our nation's highest aspirations and its toughest problems.) The rhetoric of the higher-education affirmative-action controversy, in short, does not help us determine whether the concept is sound.

Nor is the issue resolved by re erence to the particulars of this or that university's affirmative-action program. The possibility that an excellent idea may be applied somewhere in a non-excellent way is no more remarkable in this con text than in any other. In this respect, the contentions of some opponents of the diversity-promoting efforts can be analogized to a claim that democracy is no good because unqualified citizens are sometimes elected to office, or the religion is evil because some evan gelical preachers on television are mendacious.


In a nation not only of laws but also, to say the least, of lawyers, we habitually look to the law to inform us whether a policy is wise. But in matters involving racial and ethnic inclusion our law has been an unreliable teacher. Consider, for example, two famous decisions, rendered in 1896 and 1996. The first, Plessy v. Ferguson, a ruling by a nearly unanimous Supreme Court two generations after the Civil War, held that the Constitution authorizes wholesale exclusion of blacks from public accommodations occupied by whites. (In the education field, the durable results of Plessy's "separate but equal" doctrine persisted long after the high court's contrary rule, fifty-eighty years later, in Brown v. Board of Education.) The 1996 decision University of Texas v. Hopwood, from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, held that colleges and universities in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, in attempting to assemble diverse student bodies, are entirely forbidden to consider applicants' race and ethnicity. Two of the three judges who ruled in the case went so far as to assert that race and ethnicity are no more relevant than a student's blood type.

To date, only one Supreme Court decision has addressed affirmative action in admissions, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke ( 1978). Unable to agree on a rationale, the nine Justices issued six opinions in the case. The lead opinion, by Justice Lewis E Powell, Jr., held that admission quotas for racial or ethnic groups are unconstitutional, but that race and ethnicity may lawfully be considered as one factor among the many that may pertain to an applicant's suitability for admission. Justice Powell emphasized the importance of university autonomy in academic decisionmaking, a right grounded in the First Amendment.

However, many observers now question whether, in light of the rightward leanings of today's Supreme Court, the Bakke principle will be upheld when the issue is re-examined by the Justices, which could happen within a few years. We simply do not know whether the Court's next pronouncement will endorse Bakke's balanced doctrine, or whether, as with Plessy v. Ferguson, posterity will judge the Court's next statement a disgrace.

What do we know with any confidence about the value of affirmative action in admissions? Putting aside the empty rhetoric, and doubting the judgment of judges, and discounting, as we should, arguments founded on unrepresentative facts and hyperbole, where can we turn for insight?


The most informative evidence available is from the actual experience of colleges and universities with such programs. Although not yet fully marshaled, that evidence strongly supports diversity-enhancing practices that to a limited extent take race and ethnicity into account. Studies that address recruitment of a racially diverse student body have found that the initiatives produce concrete educational benefits for white as well as minority students.

For example, Professor Alexander Astin surveyed 25,000 students in 217 four-year colleges, assessing attitudes, values, beliefs, career plans, achievement, and degree completion ("Diversity and Multiculturalism on the Campus: How are Students Affected?", 25 Change 44, 45 [Mar./Apr. 1993]). He found that emphasis on diversity is associated with "widespread beneficial effects on a student's cognitive and affective development" (Astin, 48). "[T]he weight of the empirical evidence," he concluded, "shows that the actual effects on student development of emphasizing diversity and of student participation in diversity activities are overwhelmingly positive" (Astin, "What Matters in College?", 43.1 [1993]). Professor Astin's research also shows that students who interact more with students of different backgrounds tend to be more successful in college, and that students' direct experiences with diversity are positively associated with many measures of academic development and achievement ("Diversity and Multiculturalism," 46).

In The Shape of the River, William Bowen and Derek Bok analyze data on more than 80,000 students who entered eleven colleges and seventeen universities in 1951, 1976, and 1989, 45,000 of them in the latter two years. The data are eye-opening. To cite one example: Among approximately 700 blacks who matriculated at the schools in 1976, but who likely would have been denied admission under entirely race-neutral admissions policies, more than 225 attained professional degrees or doctorates; nearly 125 are business executives; and over 300 are active in civic life. The data led Bowen and Bok to observe that "[o]n inspection, many of the arguments against considering race in admissions - such as allegations of unintended harm to the intended beneficiaries and enhanced racial tensions on campus - seem to us to lack substance."

The Shape of the River demonstrates nothing less than that affirmative action in admissions has fostered an emerging black middle class increasingly prepared for the American mainstream. "Let us suppose," say Bowen and Bok, "that rejecting, on race-neutral grounds, more than half of the black students who otherwise would attend these institutions would raise the probability of acceptance for another white student from 25 to, say, 27 percent at the most selective colleges and universities. Would we, as a society, be better off? Considering both the educational benefits of diversity and the need to include far larger numbers of black graduates in the top ranks of the business, professional, governmental, and not-for-profit institutions that shape our society we do not think so."

Often it is asserted that the benefits of student diversity could be achieved in a less controversial way, such as by recruiting lowincome applicants or those from other population sub-sets that may coincidentally correlate with minority groups. Substantial hard evidence, however, including studies by Professor Thomas Kane of Harvard, shows otherwise. No feasible alternative to race- and ethnicity-targeted efforts has yet been found.

We are not a mean-spirited people for arguing about who should be invited to sit in the limited number of chairs at the best colleges and universities, although the controversy has been no model of reasoned discourse. Underlying the disagreements is a shared belief that the quality of our lives will depend more than ever before on the quality of higher education. During the lifetimes of today's high school students, racial and ethnic groups now in the minority will be half of America's population. (In the coming decade alone, there will be some two million more black and Hispanic eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds than at present.) If a calamitous state of public affairs is to be averted, members of these severely underrepresented groups must be admitted in substantial numbers to the excellent institutions of higher education long accessible only to whites. In relation to this nation's well-being, colleges and universities will be the emergency rooms of the 21st century. Let us at least agree that this is an exceptionally dangerous time for them to turn away the historically underserved.

[Author note]
Martin Michaelson is an attorney in Washington, D.C., who represents colleges and universities located throughout the United States. The views expressed here are his own.

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