Making Affirmative Action Work

Affirmative action has risen to the forefront of our cultural consciousness with the Fisher vs. University of Texas case underway in the Supreme Court. Abigail Fisher, a white college applicant, sued the University of Texas in 2008 for denying her admission on the grounds that the college gave unjust preference to racially diverse students. Earlier last month, the court began hearing arguments from both sides, and based on several of the Justice's incredulous questioning of Affirmative Action policies (particularly Justice Scalia), many political pundits and talking heads have already oraculated about the demise of race-based college admissions practices.

Let me be frank: I'm a white male who attended a predominantly white, private liberal arts college ensconced within one of America's wealthiest counties. For some readers, I should have little cause to critique AA policies. But being a self-appointed nerd who arduously labored throughout high school to gain admissions to some of the most elite universities, I always found it unfair that others who worked just as hard as I did (or sometimes even less so) would have a leg up simply by virtue of their skin color. Regardless, my secondary school diligence was rewarded and I was offered full academic scholarships to various colleges, so my anger over the matter was simply relegated to the college application process and did not surface at all throughout my four years of undergraduate study. During that time, I made a number of observations about racial interactions on campus, and in light of the Supreme Court litigation, I was roused to ruminate and recall what exactly Affirmative Action was, and based solely on my own observations, whether it really seemed to make a difference at all in the lives of minority students when I was in college.

The purpose of Affirmative Action is to not only steeped in offering racially disadvantaged students the opportunity to advance socially and economically; it is meant to promote a diverse college experience for all students. That is to say that white students, in addition to minorities, theoretically benefit from this policy by increased interactions with peers from different cultures and communities, thereby enriching their collegiate experience. Frank Bruni wrote a contemplative piece a few weeks back in The New York Times Sunday Review, in which he countered this claim and argued that college campuses may in fact be more segregated than ever before. He purports that students largely gravitate towards and socialize with members of their own race and class, and the very climate that AA advocates hoped to create is therefore abortive. In reflecting on my own undergraduate years, I have to say I largely agree. White sorority girls hung around other white sorority girls. Black students tended to fraternize with other black students. Of course, I can only speak for my college campus and this may not be indicative at all of what is occurring on a much larger scale, but Bruni invokes an often overlooked assumption when discussing AA: our basic human predisposition to gravitate towards members of our own groups. We tend to seek support and socialization from those who are most like us, and it is this basic tribe mentality that operates within many universities.

So if students are eschewing meaningful social interactions with those who differ from them, what exactly is AA accomplishing? Of course, its proponents will point to the policy's backbone in arguing its merits: that it affords otherwise disadvantaged students a chance to better themselves through education, in an attempt to level the socioeconomic playing field and compensate for historical patterns of institutional racism. That sounds great on paper, but what are the outcomes like for these minority students? How do they fare at elite colleges, and subsequently, in the job market? There is some evidence suggesting that AA may actually cause more harm than good for this population.

In what is widely known as "mismatch theory," it has been argued that minority students are ill prepared for the rigorous requirements of top tier colleges, and that placing them there simply because of race creates a mismatch between their actual abilities and the social and academic demands of such colleges, rendering them unsuccessful and giving way to abysmal graduation rates. Sure, this theory has been interpreted as latently racist and the data supporting it is mixed, but if it has any merit at all, considering this phenomenon in tandem with the average college student's predilection for intra-group polarization may engender a learning climate that is anathema to students from diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, consider that in Florida, where AA was dismantled by former Governor Jeb Bush, rates of college attendance for black students increased without universities instituting racial preferences with respect to their admissions practices.

I am not advocating the entire abolition of AA, but I do believe certain changes can be made to it, which would certainly ameliorate outcomes for various disadvantaged students. First, why focus solely on race? The social disparities that marginalize many minority groups are largely related to economic class structure, where members of lower socioeconomic classes are excluded from access to higher education and other resources. Universities should look to recruit students from this stratum, and by default, schools will fulfill their goals and be provided with a sample of racially and economically diverse applicants.

Another policy exercised by states as politically divergent as California, Florida and Texas is that of Percent Plans, wherein the top graduates from each high school across the country are given special college admissions consideration. According to The Century Foundation, Percent Plans have helped close the gap between rich and poor college students by admitting more members of the latter group. Indeed, The Century Foundation also argues that at the University of Texas at Austin alone, this plan has done more than race-based AA policies to admit applicants from families making less than $40,000 per year.

In retrospect, the antipathy I once held for AA has given way to a constructive criticism of it. By expanding the notion of diversity to include those who are economically and socially diverse, colleges would be admitting a much more heterogeneous student body and may actually come closer to achieving their goals. Rather than focusing simply on race, it would be much more egalitarian to consider a host of other characteristics constituting the profile of an underprivileged student.

Of course, even with these policies in place, administrators are powerless to force members of different social classes and races to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" in the quad, but enacting the aforementioned changes to AA might alleviate some of the underlying resentment that creates racial tensions on campus. In effect, maybe a more holistic approach to diversity that avoids focusing solely on race will soothe the white student harboring anger over his perception that a black peer matriculates on campus simply because of skin color. Similarly, perhaps the black student who likens herself to the token minority of her university would feel differently knowing that she, along with underserved white students, was admitted more because of a disparate economic situation than because of her race.

Simply taking a broader approach to what encapsulates "diversity" and even "adversity" would go far in creating better opportunities for many students, and rather than feeding into race baiting politics, our legislators and university administrators should consider this perspective and take steps to cast a wider social net for American students.