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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/16/13

Colleges, not the Supreme Court, Should Control Admissions' Policies

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Message Patrick Mattimore
The United States Supreme Court (USSC) is poised to render a major decision within the month regarding affirmative action (Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345). The Court is considering whether to overturn or significantly modify earlier decisions which permit public universities to consider race as one admissions factor in an applicant's favor.

A Washington Post-ABC News Poll released Wednesday found that 76 percent of Americans oppose allowing universities to consider race when selecting students.

But the public is being conned into thinking that cases like Fisher are solely about race.

There are a host of admissions preferences extended to applicants by US universities which are unrelated to a school's academic bottom line.

In the name of diversity, selective universities favor applicants from underrepresented geographic areas and sometimes give admissions' breaks to males.

Alumni children (legacies) and children of rich families, who may be counted on to financially support colleges, receive preferential treatment.

Faculty are courted by offering their children preferences and schools can be expected to prefer a celebrity applicant (or child of a celebrity).

So too, student athletes and accomplished performers in the arts are accepted at colleges with less stellar academic qualifications than their high school peers. Many of those athletes compete in sports (i.e. squash, crew, and lacrosse) available only to well-heeled students.

Referring to the Fisher case, Henry J. Aaron, a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, recently wrote:
"The point made in virtually every legal brief by a litigant complaining of discrimination because an African American or Hispanic with lower test scores or a weaker academic record was admitted reflects a profound confusion--such a result is inescapable once other criteria for admission are allowed to influence results. And because race, musical talent, athletic skills, and other non-academic characteristics predict academic performance less well than do grades and test scores, it is likely that those admitted because of such 'non-academic' qualifications will perform less well, on the average, than those admitted for purely academic reasons."

Although the Fisher case has been framed as a racial preference issue it is really about whether the Court should impose a legal mandate upon universities and assume the mantle of dictating admissions' policies. During oral argument in the case, Justice Sotomayor suggested precisely that in questioning whether the Court should "tell the universities how to run and how to weigh qualifications."

If the Court eliminates racial preferences, the Court will be abandoning its own hands-off precedent in favor of ostensibly exercising control over only one aspect of the system. The reality though is that the Court will be grabbing the reigns on the entire admissions system since the various parts are interrelated. Eliminating racial preferences will preference other non-academic factors.

Public universities and, indeed, private colleges and universities, seek a diverse mix of students. While an applicant's academic qualifications are, and should be, the primary determinant as to a candidate's fitness to attend a particular school, it is hardly the sole criteria.

Opponents of affirmative action suggest that race has no place in whether a school decides to accept or reject a specific applicant. They may be right, but evaluating applicants without regard to race will have the unintended consequence of encouraging other non-raced based preferences, which are not necessarily any more, and may be less equitable, than race.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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