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Why Universities Still Need Affirmative Action

By       Message Patrick Mattimore     Permalink
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Race is back in the public eye and not just because of the Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting. In June, the United States Supreme Court let stand earlier Court decisions that permit public universities to consider race as one factor in admissions. 

A Gallup Poll this past week found that 67% of Americans believe that college admissions' applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit. That is, two thirds of the people surveyed believe that race should not be taken into account.

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However, the seemingly straightforward condemnation of current university policies at selective institutions that do consider race, masks a fundamental problem with the Gallup survey.

That problem is highlighted by the fact that the poll also found that even though Americans largely reject the idea of using race as a factor in college admissions, 58% still support affirmative action programs more generally.

Attempting to reconcile the two apparently divergent opinions, one of Gallup's pollsters, Jeff Jones, suggested that "Americans may be less likely to support affirmative action in college admissions because the question raises a potential specific consequence of such programs -- admitting some minority students who would otherwise not be admitted on their merits alone -- which could in their minds outweigh the positive aspects of the policy mentioned in the question."

A better explanation for the poll results is that respondents were hamstrung because the pollsters reduced the term "merit"  to an irreducible objective quality. But merit is multifaceted and often rests subjectively in the eyes of the gatekeepers.

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Is winning a prestigious science award more meritorious than writing and publishing a book of poetry, for example? Should it matter that a university has already accepted several book authors but has only one applicant that medalled in the science contest?

College admissions is not a black or white decision-making process in which admissions' officers solely consider either race or merit. While it is possible to eliminate considerations of race at universities, as California and several other states have done with regard to public post-secondary schools, the concept of merit is both amorphous and fluid.

To suggest that eliminating race from admissions' criteria will result in selections made exclusively according to an individual's merit- academic ability or achievements- misrepresents those concepts as wholly objective.

Besides the difficulty with parsing the term merit, there are many admissions' preferences extended to applicants by US universities which are unrelated to a school's academic bottom line.

Selective universities favor applicants from underrepresented geographic areas, give admissions' breaks to alumni children (legacies), court faculty by offering their children admission, and recruit student athletes and accomplished performers in the arts.

The alternative to racial considerations in admissions is placing even greater emphasis on things like legacy preferences. No one should be fooled into thinking that eliminating race will result in an objective meritocratic system.

The United States Supreme Court concluded that race may be a factor in admissions when no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity. If race is left entirely out of the diversity equation, colleges will become less diverse and more dependent upon other subjective factors.
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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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