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Fair Preferences in Admissions

Neel Kantak

The recent debate over racial preferences in undergraduate admissions has triggered a bitter controversy. While many minority groups applaud such programs for improving educational opportunities and creating diverse learning environments, many over-represented groups complain that they are put at an unfair disadvantage, and that these discriminatory policies erode the American values of equality and merit. So what’s the right way to proceed? Do we continue to work toward maintaining racial diversity on campuses while giving a boost to groups who have been denied educational opportunities for so long? Or do we abolish such preferences in the name of “equal treatment”? Before attempting to answer these questions, we must first cast aside our emotions and logically dissect the issue; only then will the options become clear.

The most basic question that we must answer is: what are the chief ends of this policy? Many hope that giving preference to groups such as African-Americans and Hispanics, who hold a disproportionately small share of political and professional power, will spawn a burgeoning batch of highly educated minorities. These young leaders can help pave the way for minority groups to reach the forefront of society. This is certainly a worthy goal but we must question whether biased admissions policies are the right way to achieve it. Such policies imply that minority groups need a “boost” to rise in society, in other words that they are incapable of producing such leaders independently. To doubt the ability of minority students to achieve based on their own merit reflects a very risky paternalism; it contributes to the feelings of inferiority embedded in some young minority students’ psyche, the very feelings of inferiority that inhibit personal ambition, confidence, and creativity.

Those who support this motive must also question why they believe such a boost is necessary. They would likely answer that, for a variety of reasons, these minorities’ high school performance tends to be lower than that of other groups, making some assistance necessary. But doesn’t this underperformance point to a deeper problem? Efforts should be focused on understanding the inequalities in education and, more generally in society, that explain these students’ relative underperformance. Biased admissions policies which blindly bring “color” to campuses nationwide are nothing but cosmetic fixes for problems which lie well beneath the skin. Providing a blind boost hides some of the deeper issues and diverts attention away from the root of the problem.

So do there exist any sensible motivations for affirmative action in college admissions? Absolutely. One such motivation is the creation of diverse learning environments in universities. Homogeneity breeds complacency, staleness, and ignorance; conversely, diversity can bring vitality, new ideas and the opportunity for more well-informed dialogue. I believe that this is, indeed, a worthy end; however, I don’t feel that current admissions policies most fairly attempt this, and I don’t feel that most college campuses effectively achieve this.

First, admissions policies should “favor” minority applicants who add diversity over similar or better qualified non-minority applicants. A Hispanic or African-American should not simply bring a different color to a campus. He or she should bring an interesting personality or an unusual experience. Often, racial and cultural uniqueness will naturally give rise to this diversity; a student whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic, who developed an understanding of his parents’ culture and used it to shape his work ethic and guide his philosophies, will likely possess the ability to contribute to “diversity.” But this needs to be directly revealed. If I, an Indian-American, lack cultural awareness and cannot share with my fellow students a unique perspective, why should my race make me more favorable from a diversity standpoint to an admissions committee? Favoring a minority student who does not express such uniqueness simply based on his or her ethnic classification does little to enhance the quality or diversity of the college’s learning environment.

Second, possessing certain numbers or percentages of minority students alone does not achieve the goals associated with diversity. A campus may have a student body with 30 percent Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanics, but how much does this accomplish if these ethnic groups become self-segregated and actual intra-cultural interaction does not occur? In conjunction with admitting a diverse set of people, more attention must be paid to assimilating different groups and realizing the potential which the on-paper statistics only make possible.

Perhaps the most equitable motive for employing discriminatory admissions policies is to equalize educational opportunity for those who lack the resources or opportunities. This approach targets the problem of racial inequality at its root. Can an upper-middle class, white student from the suburbs, who attended the best public high school and had college-educated parents, be directly compared to a Hispanic student from a poverty-level, rough neighborhood, whose parents could not afford fancy test-prep programs? It would be short-sighted to say so. A student’s performance alone does not provide a fair assessment of his or her capabilities. Rather, student performance must be placed in the context of opportunity -- how well the student used the resources that were available. Since it is true that many under-represented minority students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, we can justify admitting many of these students over more advantaged students with higher SAT scores. But this assessment must be taken on a case-by-case basis, and should be race-blind. Just as a disadvantaged minority student’s performance should be judged on different standards, so should a disadvantaged white student’s. And a minority student who attended an elite high school and had plenty of resources should not be given this special consideration simply on the basis of race.

Such a policy has other implications as well. To maintain consistency and fairness in judging applicants in light of their opportunities, legacy students and so-called “feeder” students from elite private schools can no longer enjoy an advantage. The practice of giving special consideration to students of extreme privilege stands in even starker contrast to the ideals of fairness and merit than do special considerations due to race. Only by taking away the unfair boost which privileged students currently receive can we can begin undoing the injustice which has persisted for so long.

So what does all of this mean for racial preferences in college admissions? They may serve as tools to enhance the learning environment for all students by promoting diversity, but only if directly used to admit students with diverse backgrounds rather than simply students of color. And they certainly can serve as tools for improving opportunity for the disadvantaged, but only if applied beyond the boundaries of race. Much effort will be necessary, not just on the part of college admissions committees but on the part of campus leaders, administrators, and educational policymakers. But being ever mindful of our motives and adjusting our policies accordingly, we can take actions to ensure social justice without alienating those who have justly earned their place.

Neel Kantak is a member of the class of 2005.