Affirming diversity

Universities should continue to use affirmative action in order to advance diversity and equality

On Monday the Project on Fair Representation announced it is looking for plaintiffs for possible lawsuits against Harvard University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Wisconsin based on their affirmative action policies. According to The Chronicle, the nonprofit legal organization has created three website that students can use to report their rejection from any of the aforementioned schools, possibly because they were “the wrong race.”

POFR is the same organization that provided legal counsel to Abigail Fisher last year in her lawsuit against the University of Texas, in which she claimed she was rejected from the university because she is white. The Supreme Court’s ruling was ambiguous, with disagreements about whether it actually requires universities make any formal changes to their admissions policies. POFR would have likely preferred the court rule affirmative action policies are outright unconstitutional, as they have taken up arms once again, this time with a claim that Harvard “is discriminating against Asian-American students by using a ‘quota’ or ‘ceiling’ to limit their admission to the university.”

If Harvard or either of the other schools named by POFR is indeed using race-based quotas in their admissions process, such practices should be challenged. In the case of University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled race based quotas are not permissible in college admissions processes. Quotas are problematic because they are likely to turn away qualified applicants on the basis of race alone.

There are certain instances in which adherence to a quota is acceptable. For example, the University must enroll a certain amount of in-state students, because it is a public institution. Because the University must meet this percentage, the acceptance rate for out-of-state students is lower. This policy is justified because Virginia residents pay taxes to the state which provides funding to the University, and there is also a sufficient number of qualified Virginia students to meet the in-state enrollment percentage. But establishing a quota for race may force universities to accept unqualified students solely to fill the designated spots. This would start applicants off on an uneven playing field, forcing comparisons within racial groups, rather than looking at everyone in the pool holistically.

Affirmative action policies, though, can take race into account without using quotas. The goal of affirmative action is not to admit a certain kind of student while keeping others out; the goal is to account for institutional factors that may have put minority students at a disadvantage in terms of achievement, and to create a diverse student body by accounting for those factors.

Affirmative action policies also have the potential to address the fact that a disproportionate amount of black students tend to enroll in the least-selective colleges, and in those institutions, their graduation rates are actually lower than those of equally talented black students at elite institutions. But current affirmative action policies are not sufficiently addressing that issue, since many universities already use affirmative action, while the education gap persists.

In addition to using a race-conscious admissions process to consider those students who do apply, university officials could reach out to minority high school students to encourage them to apply. University President Teresa Sullivan recently took similar action when she sent letters to principals of high schools in low income areas, in order to solicit more applications from low-income students. Such initiatives could also increase the number of applications from minority students.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Gregory Roberts said race-conscious admissions are necessary to generate a diverse student body at the University. The University is composed of 28.3 percent minority students, which leaves much room for improvement in terms of diversity. The system of affirmative action is not perfect, but it needs to be improved or complemented rather than eliminated. University officials should continue to extend their best efforts to create diverse student bodies, and to promote equality throughout the entire realm of higher education.

Published April 8, 2014 in Opinion

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