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It's Time To Rethink Race-Based Affirmative Action

The statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Charles Krupa/AP)
The statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Charles Krupa/AP)

I don’t have a law degree, so I accept the legal reasoning behind last week’s court ruling that Harvard’s affirmative action policy “complies with the principles articulated by the Supreme Court” that permit race-sensitive admissions

But federal Judge Allison Burroughs’ 130-page decision, siding with the university against charges it discriminates against Asian American applicants, wandered beyond law into education and equity policy. There, it doesn’t take a J.D. to realize that the decision cited assumptions that are dubious or outright wrong.

America’s and academia’s drive to extend college degrees to more people is a noble and essential strategy to fight inequality. But by clinging to admissions preferences for students of color, rather than reimagining affirmative action as a class-based program for poor students, we’re missing a fairer, better way to achieve the campus diversity we seek.

If Burroughs had to side with Harvard on legal grounds, she could have at least bitten her judicial tongue in praising its “very fine admissions program” in her decision. Actually, that program and similar ones at other schools are flawed, and academia should reform them. (I speak for myself and don’t represent the views of the university where I work.)

... we’re missing a fairer, better way to achieve the campus diversity we seek.

In fairness, any commentator on combustible public affairs must sympathize with Burroughs, who was destined to be hammered however she ruled. The losers in the case, a group led by conservative activist Edward Blum, began an appeal that ultimately could land before the Supreme Court. On the other side, even some who praised the judge’s decision, slammed the reasoning in how she arrived there. “You can’t please everyone” never rang more true than in 2019 America.

Still, sympathizing with Burroughs doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to some of her ruling’s questionable assumptions.

First, she bought Harvard’s defense of its “substantial preferences that help wealthy whites," which is what Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg calls preferences for the likes of alumni children and athletes. Kahlenberg testified as an expert witness for Blum's group and after the ruling, he challenged Burroughs' contention that abolishing those preferences would impair relations with people “who have made significant contributions to Harvard.”

Kahlenberg is right — and I write that as one who thinks criticism of legacy admissions in particular (from which I benefited) is overblown. Even I know that the judge’s justifying such "wealthy white" admissions on the grounds that they grease alumni donations is specious. Research finds no “statistically significant” relation between the two. Other high-quality universities thrive without legacy preferences.

Even more misguided to advocates of class-based preferences is the judge’s contention that, were Harvard to admit more high-achieving poor students, it would dilute its academic quality. Huh? By Kahlenberg’s calculation, that feared dip in quality would drop Harvard students from the 99th percentile of performers on the SAT to — the 98th. That’s no sacrifice, especially when you consider that the university would be taking students who had the grit to do well in some awful high schools. Those kids earned a slot in the Ivy League, and society would be a better place for their having received it.

Finally, Judge Burroughs recycled a superstition peddled by advocates of traditional, race-centered affirmative action: Class-based preferences would reduce racial diversity in the student body. Actually, Kahlenberg has argued, the opposite would be true, especially if Harvard tweaked its preferences by factoring in families’ net worth.

You don’t have to take his word that admissions preferences for lower-income students need not torpedo racial diversity. California became a living laboratory for this experiment when voters there abolished racial preferences at state colleges. Initially, the ranks of students of color did indeed fall.

Then colleges reached into poor neighborhoods in the state, with academic help for high school students. The numbers of minority students on college campuses soared.

Decades after its implementation, our current affirmative action regime has made elite campuses into havens for overwhelmingly affluent kids.

Decades after its implementation, our current affirmative action regime has made elite campuses into havens for overwhelmingly affluent kids. At Harvard, Kahlenberg says, wealthy students outnumber poor ones 23 to 1. For all their undeniably high standards, the Harvards of the country have become a sideshow in the drive for education equity.

Our ancestors found a better way to educate the economically disadvantaged. In the 1860s, private universities educated just 1% of Americans (rich ones), preparing them for white-collar careers. Supporters of the 1862 law creating land grant colleges let the Ivies and their peers admit whomever they wanted, leaving it to new public universities to educate working class kids, not only for professional careers (which some didn’t want) but also in mechanical and agricultural work.

Making the time-tested institution of public higher education free for the neediest and affordable for everyone else would be more than a step toward greater equality. It would render litigation over Harvard’s admissions policy an obsession of alumni and right-wing culture warriors only.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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