Racial and Ethnic Preferences in Higher Education

By Clegg, Roger | National Forum, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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Racial and Ethnic Preferences in Higher Education

Clegg, Roger, National Forum

Those favoring discrimination often avoid this honesty. If accused of advocating discrimination, they will respond, for instance, by saying that race or ethnicity is "only one factor among many that should be considered." But that still means that there will be some cases - in fact, as a series of studies by the Center for Equal Opportunity has shown, this "one factor" is very often given heavy weight - in which it makes the difference between whether someone is admitted to a college or not. If that is not true, then why consider race or ethnicity at all? And when it is true, then discrimination has occurred.

Defenders of preferences also will frequently point out that the SAT is not a perfect predictor of future performance at college and that other admission criteria frequently used like being a good tennis player or the offspring of an alumnus - are even less predictive. If schools are using selection devices that are defective for whatever reason, go ahead and criticize them, but do not think for a minute that such criticisms make considerations of race and ethnicity any less discriminatory.

So, we are dealing with discrimination - the real question is, Is the discrimination worth it? To answer that, we must consider both the purported benefits and the costs of preferences.

The claimed benefits for the use of preferences fall into three categories: prophylactic, remedial, and diversity. The prophylactic justification is that we must affirmatively discriminate in favor of a group's members lest we fall into discriminating against them. The remedial justification is that discrimination now in favor of members of a group can help make up for discrimination in the past against members of that group. And the diversity rationale is that there are benefits to having certain groups represented at the school.


The prophylactic argument has very little plausibility in American higher education today. Do we really need preferences to keep college admission officers from discriminating against blacks and Hispanics? Of course not: the only discrimination they are apparently inclined toward is against whites and Asians. It is sometimes argued that, even if admission officers will not discriminate, others in society will. But does it really make sense to offer preferences for slots in medical school because young black men have a harder time hailing a cab? The Supreme Court has repeatedly dismissed such an untethered rationale.


There is also an obvious pitfall with the second, remedial rationale: discrimination in favor of today's individuals in group X does nothing to help the different individuals in group X who suffered discrimination in the past. The justification, then, must argue that the very individuals who suffered discrimination against them are the ones who now will be receiving discrimination in their favor, or that the discrimination suffered in the past

has had discriminatory results still being felt by those in group X.

As to the first justification, bear in mind that, in the context of college admissions, we are dealing mostly with eighteen-year-olds, born around 1981. They probably have not participated much in the work force; if they have, the laws prohibiting discrimination against them on the basis of race or ethnicity have been in effect since long before they were born. Nor have they suffered discrimination in education. Public schools are no longer segregated by race or ethnicity, nor are most private schools.

There are exceptions to the statements in the preceding paragraph. Some eighteen-year-olds may have suffered employment discrimination because of their race or ethnicity; some public schools may receive less funding because of the ethnicity of the children who go there; maybe some students are not pressed as hard because of their skin color. But the point is that an eighteen-year-old today is unlikely to have suffered the kind of systematic discrimination against him or her that would justify systematic discrimination in his or her favor.

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