Expand affirmative action beyond race
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Published: Monday, December 12, 2011
Updated: Monday, December 12, 2011 21:12
A recent report by the Obama administration provides an enlightening and carefully thought-out approach to designing affirmative action policy with the purpose of fostering diversity in higher education.
Utilizing legal precedent from the Supreme Court, the report suggests using race itself as a last resort in admissions decisions while at the same time recognizing that creating a diverse student body involves more than ethnicity.
Although the report does not fully acknowledge the social benefits of affirmative action, the policies it recommends move affirmative action closer to an ideal social purpose of leveling the college admissions playing field for disadvantaged but hardworking students, regardless of ethnicity.
The awareness that diversity comes in multiple forms is probably the most important component of Obama's report. The common but falsely held popular belief that affirmative action means blindly accepting ethnic minorities is rejected. Instead, the report advocates that higher education institutions should design affirmative action policies that do their best to avoid race and use other criteria, such as socioeconomic status, parents' educations or quality of secondary school. If the purpose of diversity is to introduce new opinions, perspectives and personal backgrounds into a student body, all three of those certainly qualify as diversifying factors.
The report differentiates these types of measures as "race-neutral approaches" to admission, but they are actually more effective approaches to achieving a diverse student body than race.
Students who are of a low socioeconomic status, have parents who did not attend college or attended a low-performing school are the ones who will have a different perspective on society than the average upper-class pupil. Ideally, these students will be able to translate this perspective into novel ideas in class and meaningful dialogue in dormitories.
Furthermore, students meeting "race-neutral" criteria normally face the greatest challenges of actually applying to, paying for and attending college and, thus, benefit the most from affirmative action policies.
They may not have the same financial or personal support system as is present in many upper-class families, who believe college applications are more important than birthdays and budget away thousands of dollars to be spent on essay coaches and SAT tutors.
The question then arises as to whether there might be overlap between students who meet these "race-neutral" measures and students of minority backgrounds. The answer is a resounding yes. Statistics from the Pew Research Center indicate that on average white households have an income twenty times higher than that of black households and eighteen times higher than that of Hispanic households.
If the plurality of students who fit "race-neutral" criteria is minorities, then the plurality of the students who receive the benefits of affirmative action will also be minorities.
However, evaluating applicants using race explicitly as a factor for admission is questionable. There are minority students who come from the middle or upper class, have solid support systems to help them prepare for college and are performing at the same level as of their white peers.
At the same time, there are white students who meet the "race-neutral" criteria and face many obstacles in their quest to attend college.
In both cases, affirmative action based on race is misplaced, as upper-class minority students don't need it, while the lower-class white students do. In regards to contributions to on-campus diversity, both the upper-class minority students and the lower-class white students bring a unique perspective on society to campus, but neither perspective should be considered superior to the other.
Utilizing this type of affirmative action policy could help higher education institutions create diverse student bodies and also maintain equitable standards for admission. The report's advocacy of shifting the focus of affirmative action away from race and towards "race-neutral" measures moves affirmative action toward achieving its ideal social goal.