On 16 June 2018, the association Students for Fair Admission (SFFA) filed suit against Harvard University for using racially biased admissions policies. This is not the first time SFFA has sued on these grounds. SFFA sued both the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, a prominent state university, and the US Department of Education for discriminatory admissions in the case of the former and for promoting affirmative action admissions policies in the case of the latter. Given that the Supreme Court dismissed, mostly due to an inadequate case, a more direct challenge to affirmative action in 2016, the SFFA suit represents another attempt to address the issue from a different angle. The crux of the SFFA lawsuit is that Harvard, as an example of a certain type of institution, is admitting under-qualified candidates from favored races in preference to highly-qualified ones from more conventional, traditionally successful ethnic groups – Asian-Americans in this specific SFFA case.
Affirmative action began in the late 19th century, before becoming a fixed policy under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. The initial purpose of the policy was to end sanctioned racism in government and education. The wording of the initial bill simply made using race for hiring or admissions criteria illegal. Very quickly, however, policy-makers discovered that the ethnographic composition of elite university student bodies, high-ranking government officials, academics, CEOs, etc. only slightly changed with the lifting of legal barriers. Everyone, from both sides of the political aisle, immediately jumped to the conclusion that cultural racism was responsible, and affirmative action morphed into a state-sponsored choosing of winners and losers based on biological factors.
Education became the center point of the battle. There is no doubt that institutional schooling in the US is part of a handful of very specific, but also highly desirable, cursi honores. For example, the majority of US presidents received part of their educations at Harvard, Yale, or other elite universities; even President Trump, perceived as the closest to the common people, obtained both his bachelors and masters degrees at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania (during a time [1960s] when few people even attended university, much less took two degrees).
In the 2016 presidential primaries, all the candidates, on both sides of the aisle, had graduated from an Ivy Plus (a designation indicating that the institution is not in the Ivy League due to geographic distance or academic focus but is accepted as equivalent via faculty sharing and student networking) university. This includes the socialist candidate, who ran on a “free college for all (among other things) platform, Bernie Sanders, an alumnus of the competitive and meritocratically elitist University of Chicago. Many tech CEOs attended, if not graduated from, Harvard, Stanford, Caltech or MIT. Unsurprisingly, most high-profile lawyers, academics, artists, and financiers attended an Ivy Plus university, or professional equivalent, at some point in their trajectories. It is no wonder that these universities are fetishized by the American public as magical portals to wealth and fame, a view that is crucial to understanding why education is the first point of contention in the affirmative action debate.
The underlying assumption with affirmative action is that the portal of higher education is truly magical and passing through it grants wealth, power, fame, etc. The focus of affirmative action is upon pushing people into the portal, without regard to whether they have the wherewithal to survive the challenge or to attain the post-graduation vision of success implicitly promised. Although exact statistics for the attrition rate of individuals admitted to universities and schools through affirmative action are unavailable, there is an established correlation between the institution of affirmative action policies and increased dropout rates.
Additionally, three academics at Duke University found in 2012 that students admitted under affirmative action had an alarming tendency to switch their majors from difficult fields, e.g. the traditional sciences and humanities, to “easy” subjects and then to struggle academically for their entire period of study. Additionally, these students were even less likely to pursue either advanced degrees or professional certification than others of similar background who attended less demanding universities that were equipped to help those with deficient secondary educations. The three scholars also highlighted that their institution, while prominent, is more attainable for someone of not-quite-exceptional ability than, for example, one of the Ivy League universities (in 2012 Duke tied 22nd in THE rankings.). This made the findings in the Duke study pool, argued the researchers, disconcerting because of the implicit negative consequences for affirmative action beneficiaries at more demanding, higher-stakes institutions, such as Harvard.
Despite affirmative action’s abysmal record at the university level, or perhaps because of it, there is now a move to introduce the policy at the secondary school level. For the vast majority of American public schools, affirmative action would have no effect since there is almost no school choice available (a separate issue). However, for charter and competitive admission public schools in high density metro areas, e.g. New York City, the move is most concerning.
New York City has two types of public high schools: 1) general schools available to all students in a specific district, and 2) the Specialized High Schools with competitive entry, which draw from all over the greater metro region. The mayor, Bill de Blasio, has proposed a reform to the city’s competitive admission public schools that would abolish entrance examinations. In exchange, the top seven percent of all the city’s primary schools would receive automatic admission to the Specialized High Schools (it’s unclear if the students and parents would still be able to choose which school) and an additional twenty percent of places would be reserved for minority populations, without regard for their actual abilities. As a writer for The Federalist noted, de Blasio’s plan would have the effect of targeting NYC’s Asian-American population since this group is geographically concentrated and relies most heavily on the selective education system for socioeconomic mobility. Additionally, the state of Texas implemented a similar plan with abysmal results – graduation rates stagnated and overall examination scores fell.
The trickle-down movement of affirmative action is a response to the graduation demographics at the university level essentially not changing over several decades. The solution varies according to socio-political leanings. Those who subscribe to identity politics incline toward the view that the problem is ethnic, arguing that non-academic factors, e.g. extracurricular activities and geographic residence, ensure preferential treatment for ethnic majorities. Those who are analysis-oriented, such as The Federalist’s Kenny Xu, argue that the problem lies in a public-school system whose inadequacies begin at the elementary level and a more general cultural abandonment of viable career alternatives, such as vocational and technical schools, in favor of vainglorious pursuit of a handful of elite universities. Reason and statistics support the latter view. As the national discussion surrounding affirmative action is still unfolding, it remains to be seen what the long-term societal impact will be.
Mary Lucia Darst
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