Affirmative Action in college admissions

Speaking of initiative petitions, as we were last Sunday, do you remember the hue and cry that erupted when California voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996? That was the measure that banned race and gender-based preferences in state hiring, contracting and university admissions.

Four years ago, the affirmative action lobby predicted that Proposition 209 would keep blacks, Hispanics and other minorities out of the University of California system, severely limiting their opportunities for higher education. While it is true that color-blind admissions policies have reduced the minority population at the flagship UC-Berkeley campus from 58.6 percent to 48.7 percent of freshman admissions, other UC campuses such as Riverside and Santa Cruz have posted impressive gains in minority admissions. At UC-Riverside, for example, black and Latino student admissions shot up by 42 and 31 percent, respectively.

As University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot wrote in the conservative Weekly Standard, "(Voters) knew that the advantage conferred on certain minority applicants had been anything but subtle. At UC-San Diego, for example, being black or Mexican-American had been worth an additional 300 points on a student's admission score." Which just isn't fair, any way you look at it.

Prof. Heriot noted that minority students who would have attended Berkeley or UCLA in the past hadn't simply vanished; instead, "they had been admitted to somewhat less highly ranked campuses ... based on their academic records rather than their skin color." Fair enough!

"After 209 passed, the sky didn't fall," added San Francisco Examiner columnist Debra J. Saunders last weekend. "While there are fewer black students at UCLA law school and UC Berkeley, total UC admissions of underrepresented minority groups are now above pre-209 levels."

I think the idea that some minorities are too dumb to compete on an equal basis is insulting to those minorities in an increasingly multi-cultural and color-blind society. You'll recall that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when all children - black, brown or white - would be judged on the basis of their achievements rather than by the color of their skin. I think the strengthening of pre-school programs such as Head Start and Early Start combined with the elimination of outmoded race-based programs will hasten the realization of Dr. King's dream for all Americans.

Meanwhile, colleges across the country are searching for alternatives to traditional affirmative action programs in an effort to obey the law while promoting student body diversity. In California, Florida and Texas, university officials guarantee a certain percentage of top high school graduates admission to their freshman classes. Other universities are weighing whether to adopt a series of group exercises that include asking prospective students to engage in Lego-building and free-form discussions. Still others are considering whether to employ a statistical formula to identify academic "strivers" - students who have performed at higher-than-expected levels given their economic and social backgrounds.

Here in Nevada, Gov. Kenny Guinn is offering millennium scholarships to high school graduates (regardless of race, ethnicity or gender) who maintain a certain reasonable grade-point average and wish to continue their studies in the Silver State. All of these alternatives strike me as more equitable than affirmative action-based admissions systems.

"Schools ought to be free to experiment with a variety of strategies that serve their educational purposes and missions," said Terence Pell, senior counsel for the Center for Individual Rights, in a Washington Post interview. Referring to a Michigan lawsuit against affirmative action, Pell stated that "The Michigan Legislature has the right to expect that the University of Michigan serves the residents of Michigan - all residents of Michigan. It's a public university." Substitute Nevada for Michigan and you have a viable higher education policy for our state, or any state for that matter.

Actually, college admissions policies are an unpredictable maze. A student with a high grade point average may be rejected while another with lower grades is admitted to the same school. A student with a high SAT score doesn't get in but one with a lower SAT score does. College admissions officers told the Washington Post it happens all the time, and usually for reasons that have nothing to do with race or ethnicity. What's going on?

Admissions officers said they consider academic transcripts, test scores, essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities and life experiences among the factors that determine who is admitted. Other social and demographic factors come into play, such as being the relative of an alumnus, or a resident of an "underrepresented" area. In 1998, Michigan adopted a 150-point scale that calibrates 10 factors in admission decisions. Being a minority counts for 20 points, or 13 percent on the scale. But if courts and judges continue to rule against affirmative action, race and ethnicity will be eliminated from the formula.

In summary, I agree with Professor Heriot of the University of San Diego that affirmative action has outlived its usefulness. "Thanks to Proposition 209, student performance is no longer predictable on the basis of race," she declared. This is good news for Ward Connerly, the African-American businessman who authored 209.

"(He) is no longer assumed to be a black pariah," wrote Ms. Saunders of the Examiner. "He stuck to his guns, he stood up for what he believed was right, and he is coming out clean." If that means the end of affirmative action in university admissions, so be it!

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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