My Turn: Affirmative Action in the crosshairs – again

My Turn: Affirmative Action in the crosshairs – again

The lawsuits alleging bias by Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill in undergraduate admissions are awaiting U. S. Supreme Court action. The suits allege that affirmative action on behalf of Black candidates is discriminatory.

These allegations are not new. Affirmative Action policies have been in the crosshairs even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor a decade ago. Nevertheless, two-thirds of Americans support Affirmative Action.

Affirmative Action as proposed by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson was intended to address long-term racial prejudice that resulted in African-Americans being disadvantaged in terms of wealth accumulation and educational opportunities.

It was intended to protect against bias and ensure opportunity to access. It was never a guarantor of success in achievement. The record shows that without it, Black student enrollment declines.

It will be up to Harvard and UNC to mount their arguments in court. In the meantime, let us consider college admissions.

Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and a small number of other institutions admit fewer than 7% of applicants for first-year enrollment. Last fall, Harvard admitted under 4% of applicants. So, with many more applicants than spaces for students, should these highly selective colleges admit students by lottery, by HS class rank, by SAT/ACT scores, or should they try to compose a first-year class of differing characteristics? Such characteristics include geographic region; high school and family resources; intended major course of study; athletic, musical, or theatrical talents; hardships overcome; and racial, ethnic, or economic considerations, among others.

  • A major reason for these college and university admissions officers to consider such characteristics in composing a first-year class is this. College graduates, whether of Asian origin, Black, Latinx, Native American, or white, will live in communities and work in enterprises that are influenced by international and inter-cultural forces. They will be neighbors, co-workers, and supervisors of, or be supervised by, persons of a different ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, religion, and interests.


Therefore, it is imperative for colleges that can be selective to do as much as they can to create diverse campus communities of students, faculty and staff. By and large, the high schools which their applicants attend do not provide such diversity, so colleges compensate for it. They know that diversity promotes learning. However, efforts to achieve significant diversity in enrollment are mostly limited to highly selective institutions with many more applicants than spaces.

Most colleges and universities do not have this opportunity. According to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, most institutions admit two-thirds of the applicants for freshman status. While nearly 70% percent of those admitted to Harvard accept the offer, well-known schools such as Colgate and Purdue find that under 30% of those admitted accept their offer. For many colleges, the yield on offers of admission is even lower.

We know that graduates of less selective public and private colleges and universities do well in their civic and professional lives. The “fit” between the person and the institution is key. So, instead of focusing our attention on the legal practices of the most elite institutions, we should focus on the funding of quality education in public schools and libraries, adequate prenatal care and nutrition in all communities, and the funding of public higher education. These policies will help prepare students for rigorous academic instruction. We know what works at Andover and Amherst and can do much better in supporting students on Long Island as well as SUNY, for example.

Because of disparities in the preparation of students, we have witnessed increased selectivity by public universities that were created to serve the middle class rather than the wealthy. After all, if public institutions have a surfeit of applicants, they will choose those best prepared. And, since academic credentials are highly correlated with family income, they will “crowd out” those for whom the institutions were intended. Therefore, we should do more to fund increased enrollment as well as quality at public campuses.

 The politics surrounding affirmative action have brought renewed attention to other admissions practices, especially preferences given to the children of alumni and college employees. The argument is that this practice promotes intergenerational privilege. This may be true, but I must admit to great satisfaction with the increasing number and percentage of new students at Adelphi who were the children and grandchildren of alumni. It was a sign that alumni were proud of alma mater.

 Opponents of the use of race in admissions call it reverse discrimination. Discrimination, they say, is against the law, and indeed it is. There are those who allege that Affirmative Action in admissions gives advantage to the children of Black doctors and lawyers and disadvantages the children of White sanitation workers and laborers. These critics do not seem to understand either the realities of racism in our country or the efforts taken by selective colleges to consider economic and geographic diversity as criteria. They also fail to acknowledge that Affirmative Action in admissions is not practiced at most campuses.

Instead of attempting to adjudicate and legislate college admissions and banning books, public officials should be supporting the schools that prepare American students for a lifetime of learning and citizenship.

Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus, Adelphi University and Ramapo College of New Jersey; Author, How University Boards Work, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018



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