AbstractThis essay will explainthe idea behind affirmative actions in college admission. This topic is stillwidely discussed in the United States. The main arguments for and againstaffirmative action will be pointed out and the examples of UCLA as well as thesituation with Asian-Americans will help to illustrate the issue followed bysome ideas for alternatives.
The essay will end with a reflection and expressionof my personal opinion on that matter. Introduction”You do not take a person who, for years, hasbeen hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to up to the starting lineof a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ andstill justly believe that you have been completely fair.” – Lyndon B. JohnsonWith these words, then President Lyndon B. Johnson sparked the heated debateabout affirmative action in employment and college admission in 1965 (Kahlenberg, 2015). But what exactly is ‘affirmative action’? Simply put, it is an active attemptto provide everyone with the same opportunities by putting the disadvantagedinto a more favorable position. Many attributes such as sex or race can serveas a criterion to determine who deserves an advantage.
For the last fivedecades, race seemed to have been the most commonly used criterion, especiallyin college admission. In the job market it can be seen that more and moreemployers do not only regard race as an important feature of future employeesbut also sex (Zinshteyn, 2016). In the United States, colleges focus their affirmativeaction policies in admissions on blacks and Hispanics. Affirmative Action issupposed serve as a mean to make up for discrimination in the past and lingeringeffects that might still exist today (Slater, 2013). There are two types of affirmative action: weakaffirmative action and strong affirmative action. A weak affirmative actionpolicy uses racial preference as a tie breaker; so if there are two equallyqualified applicants, one from a minority and one from a non-minority, theminority-applicant would be picked. A strong affirmative action policy, on theother hand, prefers the minority-applicant on the base of his race and does nottake into account that the other non-minority-applicant might be more qualified(Wasson, 2004).
Most widely common nowadays are strong affirmative action policies, especiallyin many US-American colleges. But what reasons do both parties, proponents as wellas opponents of affirmative action, have to defend or attack theserace-conscious policies? Pro ArgumentsProponents of affirmative action policies rely mostheavily on the argument of ensuring diversity in the classroom. Especially inour modern times we are surrounded by people from different backgrounds. Whilein former times the ‘diversity’ might have been a solely socio-economicdiversity, such as having students from an affluent family study with studentsfrom a poorer background, the diversity that is aimed for nowadays is a racialand thus also a cultural one. It is believed that people in a diverse classroomcan not only learn a lot on an academic level but especially on a personallevel by learning from one another (Slater, 2013).Furthermore successful minorities in prestigiouscolleges and later on in leading positions serve as a role model and inspireother people with a minority status to strive for excellence and work hard (Wasson, 2004).
Another argument which is often brought up byproponents of affirmative action is the fact that the demographic of a state isless represented in universities that have abandoned race as an admissioncriterion compared to those that still have a race-conscious admission policy (Newkirk II, 2017). The example ofCalifornia can help to illustrate that point: Even though almost 50 percent of California’scollege-aged population is either black or Hispanic, on many campuses theseminority students only account for roughly a quarter of the freshmen (Ashkenas, Park and Pearce, 2017). The argument of reversed racism is often dismissed asbeing less bad as opponents of affirmative action like to believe. The racismminorities experienced up until the 60s put them in an inferior position; theywere regarded as less worthy, second-class citizens. Affirmative action,however, does not treat any race as less worthy.
Instead they it aims to createequal opportunity for everyone (Sandel, 2009). Contra ArgumentsOne of the affirmativeactions’ opponents’ biggest arguments is the Mismatch Theory. The idea behind this theory is that a student whoentered a university not on the base of his/her academic abilities but ratherdue to a preference in race might not be able to keep up with the others in aclassroom where the rest of the students meets the college’s academicrequirements. The results can vary from a lower self-esteem over lower grades,not passing exams and thus not graduating or dropping out to having a hard timefinding a job later in the market. Authors Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.express worries in their book Mismatch:How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and WhyUniversities Won’t Admit It about how someuniversities might lower their requirements for graduation to ensure and showthat also many minority students obtain their degree (Zinshteyn, 2016). Sander refers to a studywhich compared black students attending their first-choice school due torace-conscious admission policies to black students that voluntarily went fortheir second-choice university where they would be better ‘matched’. In hisanalysis he concludes that the share of students who failed their first barexam was higher amongst those who enrolled in their first choice college wherethey are ‘mismatched’ compared to those who opted for their second and moreacademically qualified choice (Slater, 2013).
The mismatch theory seemsto apply especially to students of science, technology, engineering and math –the so-called STEM majors. Main reason for that finding is the fact that inthese studies new knowledge is built on existing knowledge from previoussemesters. So if a student has a hard time keeping up with the pace of theclass in the short run, he/ she is more likely to have a problem keeping up inthe long run too (Slater, 2013). Furthermorethese studies are graded stricter; demanding concise answers that do not leavemuch room for interpretation or individual insights (Zinshteyn, 2016). An example opponents ofaffirmative action often refer to is the UCLA which banned a race-consciousadmission policy after the Proposition 209 in 1998. Despite the initial drop inenrollment of blacks and Hispanics, numbers started rising again. True, eversince the ban there were never as many minorities enrolled compared to thenumbers before the ban. However, the UCLA pointed out that the amount ofminorities graduating did not change after the Prop 209 ban.
The main reasonfor this phenomenon was, simply put, the reduction in mismatch. Minoritystudents who were not qualified enough to attend went to less elite schoolswhere their chances of graduating were higher than in the more elite ones.Academically strong Hispanic and black students, however, managed to getadmitted to UCLA nonetheless. So in short, while less minority students wereenrolled, most of them were granted their bachelor degrees (Sander and Taylor Jr., 2012).
Another argument againstaffirmative action is the increased race-consciousness. The fact that race is acriterion in college admission draws the focus onto it and thus diminishes theeffort of many to create a ‘color-blind’ society. Racism is to this day a bigproblem in the United States and placing importance on race will only fosterracism. If minorities, admitted through affirmative action, then fall behind inclass because the classroom pace does not match their academic capabilities,that in turn can then reinforce the stereotype many people have aboutminorities being less intelligent (Sander and Taylor Jr.
, 2012). The race-segregationon the basis of academic background within the college is not a desirableoutcome (Reardon et al.,2016). Furthermore, affirmative actionkeeps putting minorities in an inferior, victim position. In order to attain anadvantage, the minorities first need to see themselves as victims which in turnonly creates more tensions between individuals of different races (Wasson, 2004). When there is a winner –in this case Hispanics and blacks – there is often a loser – namely whites andAsian-Americans. While proponents of affirmative action promote the argument ofhaving universities match the demographics of the country, critics point outthe case discrimination against Asian-Americans in particular.
Within about 20years in the late 20th century the enrollment of Asian-Americans atHarvard increased by 15%. During the 90s, however, the share of Asian-Americansstarted decreasing; not only at Harvard but at many other Ivy League collegesas well. What is so striking about this trend is the fact that the number ofAsian-Americans in college-age increased throughout the states.
This suggeststhat the admirable goal of affirmative action to match the student body’scomposition to demographics does not work out all that well. Asian-Americans haveto perform much better on SAT scores andare held to higher standards compared to other applicants. On the other hand,enrollment of Asian-Americans in universities that practiced a race-neutraladmission policy, started to increase (The Economist,2013). In response to theproponents’ argument of creating diversity in the classroom one can questionthe assumption that skin color automatically equals a different viewpoint.
Especially nowadays, where many people are the second, third or even fourthgeneration of people with a different background, they might share the sameviews and values as their white fellow citizens (Wasson, 2004). Are there any alternatives to race-conscious policies incollege admission?Thecourt in the famous Fisher vs. University of Texas case has argued that raceshould only play a part in college admission if the school is unable to findany alternatives for increasing diversity on campus (Long, 2015).A suggestion by Sander in the book Mismatch for colleges is to be moretransparent, especially for the students. This transparency can be achieved bycollecting and analyzing data on how students with a certain academic levelperformed in a particular major.
The data can then serve as a guideline forapplying or admitted students and then it is up to them to decide whether theschool really is the right one for them (Zinshteyn, 2016). Furthermore, the twoauthors propose that universities should improve their recruiting strategies.Summer programs and SAT preparation classes for students who are strugglingacademically are amongst their suggestions (The Economist,2013). Schools could also shifttheir focus from race to low-income students. Studies found that Hispanics andblacks tend to be poorer than their white counterparts. This would satisfy theaffirmative action’s proponents’ desire for more diversity in the classroomwithout preferring someone to another simply because of their skin color.
Furthermore, focusing on the financial situation would benefit a broaderspectrum of people as there are also many white Americans living in poverty andthus are at a disadvantaged position (Deruy, 2016). Many blackstudents enrolled in university tend to have a middle- or even upper-classbackground and are more likely to have a good K-12 education compared to poorblacks (The Economist,2013).Public universities instates such as Texas, Florida and California started adopting a top 10%admission policy: The top 10% of their high school class were automaticallyadmitted. This includes also high schools with a very high share of minoritystudents. It has been shown that this policy increased the enrollment of blacksand Hispanics (Wasson, 2004; TheEconomist, 2013). Race-conscious admissionpolicies seem to only cover up the symptoms of the imbalance but not cure theroot cause of it. Affirmative action policies only take place in secondaryeducation.
But would it not make more sense to aim for academic equality muchearlier by improving the K-12 education, ranging from kindergarten to highschool (Wong, 2016)? ConclusionWhile it is true thataffirmative action helped a lot of disadvantaged blacks starting in in the 60s,I personally find the opponents’ arguments more compelling, especially themismatch theory. Is it really worth going to a prestigious school just toobtain a mediocre degree? A university’s main goal should be to challenge andeducate its students; to help them grow and thrive. And of course, there aresome universities that are more suitable than others for specific studies andacademic levels. There is no shortage in universities across the country sothere should be plenty of alternatives to schools at which one might bemismatched. One possible driving force that makes students opt for moreselective colleges might be the social pressure.
Society tells us to get thebest education in order to get the best job so we can live a good life. Thequestion, however, is: What is “the best”? Best for whom? Best for whatpurpose? I can see where theproponents are coming from and I am a supporter of diversity and the value itadds to one’s personal development. But it seems that affirmative action’sinitial goal of providing everyone with equal opportunities has been replacedby the ‘socially worthy’ aim of creating diversity. The biggest loser, is thegroup of minorities who to this day still live in destitution; they do notbenefit from affirmative action as much as they should. Main reason for that isthe fact that other minorities coming from more affluent families as likely tohave had a better K-12 education and thus fulfill the criteria ofminority-status as well as better grades. Universities really should consider to take socio-economicbackgrounds into consideration to ensure that these poor minorities also get achance.
However, if this attempt fails, I do not see any point in continuing topractice affirmative action. The alternatives thatconvinced me the most are the Top 10% as well as improving the K-12 educationalong with improved outreached programs. Affirmative action is acomplicated topic and it seems to me that the debate of whether schools shouldstill implement it in their college admission will still be going on for sometime. But when has affirmative action reached its goal? When is it no longer needed?And even more important: Who determines its end?