You have heard the news that the Trump administration, supported by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is ramping up efforts to do away with long-standing policies that have afforded advantageous educational opportunities to so-called minority students. Actually, the efforts began nearly a year ago, on August 1, 2017, when the Justice Department called for new efforts to combat “intentional race-based discrimination.”
Fighting “race-based discrimination” sounds like a good thing to do. But as most American educators know, the agenda is actually somewhat different. The motivation behind those efforts seems to be to do away with all considerations about race, religion, countries of origin and similar factors – to simply admit students based on their grades and standardized test scores. The stated rationale behind that thinking is that lowering admissions standards for certain “minorities” denies admission to non-minority students who are better qualified – and that the current way of admitting students is unfair and discriminatory. That kind of thinking holds that it is not up to colleges and universities to right social wrongs or make up for the poor level of education that some students have experienced in underperforming, inner-city schools.
That might, or might not, be the thinking that underlies the current administration’s efforts to end college’s leeway to consider race when offering admission to students.
Yet that thinking is both flawed and simplistic. Because the reality is that discriminatory admissions practices are, and have been, so completely baked into the admissions process that it is impossible for them to be changed by one directive from the government, or by the outcomes of one or two court cases. (As we write this blog post, an organization called Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard University, demanding that the University release admissions files that could show that it has discriminated against students of Asian heritage.)
So let’s consider what those traditional, entrenched, baked-in forms of discrimination are and have been.
It Is Easier for Less Qualified Male Students to Gain Admission to Many Colleges
This is an open secret at many colleges – in fact, in virtually all colleges where one goal of admissions is to admit a class that is comprised of 50% men and 50% women. Data is hard to find, but the fact is that if many colleges considered only GPAs and test scores and forgot about gender, their freshman classes would be made up of 60%, 70%, or even greater percentages of women than of men. (Why? Because high school girls are better students.) So to maintain gender balance, those schools admit some men who are less qualified than some women.
Quotas Against Asian-American Students Are Entrenched at Many Colleges
This is another open secret. If colleges stopped considering ethnic and racial backgrounds and admitted students based on test scores and GPAs only, they would end up with incoming classes that were made up largely of Asian-American students. So . . . they discriminate. Why would it be so bad for an elite institution to have an incoming class that was, say, comprised of 60% or 70% Asian-Americans? Frankly, we have no idea.
Qualified Students Whose Families Don’t Need Financial Aid Have an Easier Time Getting Admitted
The reality is that qualified students from well-to-do families have an easier time getting admitted to colleges that have to consider dollars and cents when building an admitted class. The plum, most sought-after students are generally those whose families do not apply for financial assistance. So wealthy, well-qualified students have an easier time getting in than less wealthy well-qualified students do. Fair? No, but that is what is happening.
Quotas Against Jewish Students Have Long Shaped American Higher Education
As recently as 50 years ago, elite colleges and universities maintained quotas to limit the number of Jewish students they admitted. The thinking was that if those institutions made admissions decisions based only on academic qualifications, they would end up with “too many Jews” in their incoming classes.
Legacy Admissions Still Shape Incoming Classes
This is not an open secret. It is not a secret at all. Colleges and universities like to give preferential admissions consideration to the children (and sometimes grandchildren) of alums. They have rational reasons for doing so, because the practice encourages more alumni to donate. And when more alums contribute, the colleges’ ratings rise, because alumni giving is viewed as a positive thing. One good thing? Admissions offices at many elite schools now have such large pools of highly competitive applicants that they do not have to admit legacy applicants who are under-qualified . . . or at least not too under-qualified. Again, statistics on the number of legacy students admitted, and their qualifications, are hard to come by.
What Will the Results Be of the New Government Fight Against Affirmative-Action Admissions Policies?
We don’t know for certain. But we do suspect that the government’s belief that one wave of a legislative or other wand can change deeply entrenched practices is unrealistic. Discriminatory practices have been in place for so long, and on such a deep level, that they are not about to go away so easily. And . . . perhaps some of them shouldn’t go away at all.
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