Rethinking affirmative action

Affirmative action has been the source of a heated national debate for several decades, but now the fire’s roaring. The legality of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program is being challenged in the Supreme Court. We haven’t heard the Supreme Court’s word on affirmative action in over 20 years; if that body makes a decisive ruling on its use in public universities, private universities will also take note. It’s arguably the most important case that the court has considered this decade, and it deserves a close look.

In 1978, the Supreme Court issued the Bakke decision; in this landmark case, the Court endorsed the use of race as one factor in a nuanced mix of admissions criteria meant to promote diversity. The Court effectively banned the use of quotas to achieve a desired racial composition in the student body; this is the legal basis on which two former UMich applicants are currently challenging the university’s affirmative action program. They argue that UMich’s admissions program constitutes a quota system; they were denied admission to the university and believe that their race (Caucasian) was the deciding factor.

The first charge is debatable – it’s tough to say if UMich’s system employs racial quotas. Right now, the school has a system that rates applicants on a 150-point scale; typically, a prospective student needs 100 points to gain admission. How does one score points? A perfect SAT score counts for 12 points. Being Hispanic, black or Native American yields 20 points; being Arab, White, Asian or Jewish garners a nice round zero. While UMich isn’t allocating a specific percentage of spots for particular ethnicities, it’s clear that its system aims for a certain level of minority students.

Could UMich’s statistical experts tailor an incoming class’s composition by tweaking the point system? Definitely. But is it a quota? I wouldn’t call it one – the point system relies on factors other than race (even though race counts for a huge chunk of points) and there’s no allotment of spots based on race alone.

On the other hand, the second claim is indisputable: The prosecuting team has clearly shown that if UMich’s system didn’t have the racial point boost, these applicants would have gained admission.

While these claims have legal importance, they comprise only a small part of an immensely important societal decision: On what criteria should we base admission to our nation’s top colleges?

President Bush claims to have the answer. He has filed a brief with the Supreme Court, urging them to strike down affirmative action programs in favor of a “percentage plan.” Under Bush’s plan, any student graduating in the top 10 percent of a public high school would be guaranteed admission to a state university, though not necessarily to the one of their choice: Technically, race would be a non-factor in admission decisions.

However, the Bush plan ignores the real issue at hand: admission to our most competitive state colleges. Under the percentage plan, the top 10 percent is guaranteed admission to a state college, but not necessarily the top-notch state schools. UMich is one such school – it’s got an acceptance rate that hovers around 50 percent – and there’s no guarantee of admission even if a prospective student is in the Bush plan’s 10 percent club.

In fact, it’s a club with few perks. If you’re in the top 10 percent of your high school class, there’s little doubt that you’d make it into a state university without the Bush plan; there would be several other state schools in Michigan virtually guaranteeing you admission. Getting into a top state school could do a lot for you; getting into the 10 percent club would do little. Multiply this situation by a couple hundred thousand students, and it’s apparent that Bush’s plan will do little to ensure diversity in the best state schools.

Moreover, the plan’s efficacy hinges on the maintenance of a public high school system that is largely informally segregated along lines of socioeconomic status and race. Generally speaking, it’s a trend that the richer and whiter the neighborhood, the better the public high school. Frankly, I find it unconscionable that something so valuable – the quality of your high school education – is determined by something as arbitrary as your neighborhood: It’s a system that should be changed.

Yet, this very system allows Bush to promote his plan as a “race-neutral” means of ensuring diversity; he’s very upfront about the fact that some minority students are bound to enter the 10 percent club simply because many high schools are disproportionately minority-based.

In the end, the Bush plan is just as one-sided as race-based affirmative action programs. It relies on class rank as its only criterion, while the UMich program uses race as a highly important factor. Should we really base so much on one factor?

The answer is no. I don’t care if it’s race, SAT scores, your parents’ income or your high school grades: Basing admissions decisions on one quality won’t yield merit or diversity. College admissions have to look at the total package.

The Supreme Court should tell UMich to compose a more complicated point system that takes more factors – such as socioeconomic status and parental occupation – into account.

So far as I’m aware, there are several exceptionally intelligent judges on the bench of the Supreme Court: Let’s hope they realize that we can, and should, achieve both diversity and merit in college admissions.