Beyond race-based affirmative action

After oral arguments today in Fisher vs. University of Texas, many think the U.S. Supreme Court will limit, if not eliminate, universities’ ability to use race in admissions. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, argues UT has achieved diversity by admitting the top 10 percent graduates at each high school and doesn’t need to use a race-conscious policy to admit more blacks and Hispanics.

A loss for affirmative action would be good for ethnic and racial diversity in the long run, argues Thomas J. Espenshade, in Moving Beyond Affirmative Action, a New York Times commentary. Americans would have to address “the deeply entrenched disadvantages that lower-income and minority children face from the beginning of life,” writes Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton and a co-author of  No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life.

Race-based affirmative action affects only 1 percent of all black and Hispanic 18-year-olds, the students who apply to more selective colleges and universities, he writes. Eliminating the preference would cut black admissions by 60 percent and Hispanics by one-third at selective private schools. Giving preferences to low-income students wouldn’t make up the difference, “given the large numbers of working-class non-Hispanic whites and Asians in the applicant pool.”

Without affirmative action, racial diversity on selective college campuses could be preserved only by closing the racial achievement gap, Espenshade writes.

 If affirmative action is abolished, selective colleges and universities will face a stark choice. They can try to manufacture diversity by giving more weight in admissions to those factors that are sometimes close substitutes for race — for example, having overcome disadvantage in a poor urban neighborhood. Or they can take a far bolder step: putting their endowments and influence behind a comprehensive effort to close the learning gap that starts at birth.

That would be a long, hard struggle, but it would benefit many more people. “However the court decides the Fisher case, affirmative action’s days appear numbered,” Espenshade predicts. ”In 2003, in the Grutter decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that she expected such preferences to disappear within 25 years — by 2028. The children who would go off to college that year are already 2 years old.”

'Idaho farm boys' aren't 'diverse'

College diversity policies don’t extend to Asians, low-income whites, Junior ROTC officers or Idaho farm boys, writes Russell Nieli, who works for Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, on Minding the Campus.

A new study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford uses data from eight highly competitive public and private colleges and universities over three years.

To have the same chances of gaining admission as a black student with an SAT score of 1100, an Hispanic student otherwise equally matched in background characteristics would have to have a 1230, a white student a 1410, and an Asian student a 1550.

Low-income status improved the admissions chances for blacks, Hispanics and Asians, but not for whites.  Private institutions were much more likely to admit affluent whites than disadvantaged whites with the same grades and test scores.

Private institutions, Espenshade and Radford suggest, “intentionally save their scarce financial aid dollars for students who will help them look good on their numbers of minority students.”

In the Bakke ruling Lewis Powell laid the groundwork for “diversity” admissions, Nieli points out. Powell wrote:

“A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.”

But the Ivy League doesn’t see Idaho farm boys or other red-staters as diverse. In most cases, extracurriculars help admission, especially for students in leadership roles, but that’s not true for Junior ROTC officers or 4-H or Future Farmers of America leaders, the study found. Excelling in these activities “is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission.”

Update: New York Times columnist Ross Douthat cites Nieli and the Espenshade study  in The Roots of White Anxiety.