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Affirmative Action Is Still Needed in Higher Education

When it comes to college admissions, focus on the game, not the players.
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(Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flicks)

(Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flicks)

College admissions officers across the country will soon be sorting through endless piles of applications. They will consider students’ academic achievements and extracurricular involvement, among other things. But in nine states, including my home state of Michigan, these officers will be prohibited from using race as a factor in admission decisions.

Since the Supreme Court upheld a voter referendum banning the use of race in university admissions earlier this year, many have hailed this last onslaught against affirmative action as an important step toward meritocracy in higher education. But there is decidedly more to college admissions, race, and privilege than meets the eye.

To contextualize this, I often consider a game I played as an undergraduate known as Star Power. Each of the players began the game with an equal number of gold stars, but the stars were randomly assigned different values. The object of the game was to trade stars to see who ended up not with the most stars, but with the most points.

While we hail higher education as the great equalizer, disparities in university admissions reveal staggering race-based inequalities.

In the end, it was obvious that those players who ended the game with the most points were also the ones who started the game with the most points. In the discussion following, those of us who began the game with stars of lower value complained that we felt invisible and frustrated. Those who began with more points (and ultimately won) didn’t understand the problem. They had simply played by the rules and gotten—or stayed—ahead. It wasn’t their fault that they won the game. In reflecting on that conversation, I now realize that directing our anger at individual players for winning the game missed a more important point: The game was rigged before we started playing.

Similarly, in the current debate about race and privilege in American higher education, to ask if individual students “deserve” their college admissions or academic achievements misses the point. Instead, it is more accurate and fruitful to talk about historical and structural factors that systematically award some applicants higher value, while simultaneously dismissing and excluding others.

President Lyndon Johnson summarized this in 1965: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say, ‘You are now free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” As we debate and reflect on race and privilege in our society nearly half a century later, Johnson’s words still ring true.

While we hail higher education as the great equalizer, disparities in university admissions reveal staggering race-based inequalities. A recent report by researchers at Georgetown University, for example, found that “more than 30 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics with a high school grade point average (GPA) higher than 3.5 go to community colleges compared with 22 percent of whites with the same GPA.” This finding points out that the racial disparities in higher education are not linked to merit or personal achievement, but systematic exclusion and discrimination.

And while most of us are quick to distance ourselves from such findings and underscore our firm belief in meritocracy, mutual respect, and egalitarianism, the causes and effects of racial disparities extend well beyond the convictions of individuals. Race and privilege are covertly encoded in our educational systems—from students’ high school reputations to their letters of recommendation to their parents’ alma maters. These facts effectively add up to more difficult (and discriminatory) admissions processes for students of color.

The effects of these inequalities last throughout individuals’ lifetimes, affecting opportunities for employment and social advancement. According to the College Board, “the unemployment rate for individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree has consistently been about half the unemployment rate for high school graduates.” Thus, excluding students of color from higher education has far-reaching social, political, and economic consequences.

More importantly, the effects of these inequalities are inherited across generations. A recent study at Brandeis University followed families over a 25-year period found that the wealth gap between white and black families tripled between 1984 and 2009. Although some may be tempted to attribute these disparities to personal attributes or individual choices, this study found that pre-existing privilege (measured, in part, by parental education) was the primary driver of this increased divide. Adults without higher education face difficulties in finding employment, and their children face difficulties breaking into higher education. The effects are perverse, cyclical, and underscore the importance of affirmative action for current and future generations.

For those of us not fortunate enough to be born with privilege, racially conscious admissions policies remain a small but necessary step toward equal access to opportunities historically limited to the most privileged among us. Undoubtedly, reaching a state of equality is a huge task to be accomplished over many generations. Yet achieving true equality necessitates shifting the public conversation about race and privilege. Instead of dismissing racism and assigning blame, we should recognize that none of us earn our position independent of our social circumstances. Instead of hoping that meritocracy is an inevitable social end, we should work actively to eliminate sources of palpable disadvantage in our society.