Affirmative Action in College and University Admissions: Yes

By Michaelson, Martin | National Forum, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Affirmative Action in College and University Admissions: Yes


Michaelson, Martin, National Forum


Until these and a handful of other carefully reasoned publications came forward, few issues under broad public discussion were characterized by a less illuminating ratio of heat to light than this one. Strident polemic drowned out more thoughtful voices.

Several reasons seem plain. A college degree has become for most Americans, perhaps to an unprecedented extent, the sine qua non of upward economic mobility. Census data show the surprisingly large amount by which average annual incomes of bachelors-degree holders exceed incomes even of those who attended college but did not graduate. Competition for admission to the most prestigious colleges, many of whose graduates occupy envied positions, has grown more rivalrous. Rejection from these top institutions can be painful, not least to parents who want the world for their children. No great imagination is needed to see why blacks and other minorities are blamed when moderately well-qualified white daughters and sons are denied entry to the elite college that is their first choice. Also, statements of federal officials during the Reagan and Bush administrations - as well as litigation brought by conservative groups, Proposition 209 in California, Initiative 200 in Washington State, legislation proposed in Congress, and other political developments - have contributed to the impression that white students are being unjustly barred from college.

EFFECTS ON WHITES

Yet the noise this issue generates should not, as a factual matter, be mainly attributable to exclusion of white applicants. True, the most selective institutions were virtually lily-white until the 1950s, and no longer are. Harvard's dormitories were effectively segregated until World War II, and the private college that was most integrated before 1950 (Oberlin, which had a practice of race sensitivity dating to the Underground Railroad) found itself unable to sustain a four percent participation rate for blacks. But affirmative action in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s has hardly turned the institutions upside down. Even at the twenty-eight top-tier colleges and universities whose racial demographics Bowen and Bok studied, the foreclosure - if that is the right word - attributable to affirmative action is a small fraction of enrollments. Most college students today, as in prior years, attend institutions where all or nearly all qualified applicants are admitted and where race and ethnicity do not figure in admissions decisions.

Further, those selective colleges and universities that do take into account the race and ethnicity of historically underrepresented minority applicants ordinarily assign greater and more dispositive weight to all applicants' scores, grades, and extracurricular achievements. The effect, in statistical terms, of race- and ethnicity-targeted admissions policies on the probability that a prototypical white applicant will be admitted to one of these selective institutions is virtually negligible. Elimination of the programs would increase the white applicant's probability of admission, which is about 25 percent, only to about 26.5 percent, according to extensive data available to Bowen and Bok.

Is this, then, really a debate about opportunity? By numerous measurements, opportunity for white persons in the United States today far exceeds that for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. The gaping disparity between college graduation rates of whites and members of those groups has been increasing, not decreasing, and is projected to widen, not narrow. Whites continue to make much more money on average than do those minorities. Whites still occupy federal, state, and local public office in disproportion to their numbers. And whites dominate, also disproportionately, every profession and occupation accorded status, except professional sports (where whites control management) and, to the extent so regarded, the enlisted military ranks. There is no serious argument that affirmative-action programs of the limited type now administered by the institutions of higher education that have them will reverse white domination in our lifetimes, if ever. …

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