A Fairer Affirmative Action System

Two applicants vie for Columbia admission. The first spent his entire life on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and attended private schools all his life, where he cruised through school and obtained good, but not spectacular grades and a commendable SAT score, 2100 out of a possible 2400. The second grew up in working-class Flushing-Queens, worked part-time to support her family, and attended public schools all her life, where she labored to achieve perfect grades, and prepared for years for her SAT test, finally achieving a score of 2400. The first applicant is granted admission; the second is not. Does this indicate an unfair gap between private and public schools and their respective connections at top universities? No. Consider that the first applicant is an African-American male and the second is an Asian-American female. Suddenly, this Columbia admissions decision makes sense. Affirmative action determined that this average African-American male, with average grades and Columbia’s average board scores, fits better into Columbia’s admitted students pool—rather than this Asian female with perfect grades and board scores. Columbia eschewed the hard-working, poor and supremely academically qualified candidate for a rich, lazier candidate of average Columbia academic qualifications—primarily because of the candidates’ respective skin color. Is this fair? The Supreme Court, in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, says yes. The Justices offered two justifications to support this ruling. The first, spear-headed by Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, purported that past discrimination of certain racial groups necessitated a need for a remedial educational policy. A problem emerges with this rationale; Asian-Americans have also been discriminated against in the past, yet they do not benefit from the “remedial educational policies.” True, Asians did not suffer 200 years of slavery. However, they bore the brunt of explicitly discriminatory legislation—Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, anyone?—and suffered forced labor in inhuman conditions, akin to Hispanic Americans who receive the exact same benefits as African-Americans. If colleges wish to use the Bader-Ginsburg justification and avoid accusations of hypocrisy, their affirmative action benefits must extend to Asian-Americans. However, Asian-Americans are grossly over-represented as it is—in the entire United States, Asian-Americans represent a mere 3% of the total population, yet this percent more than triples at even the most discriminating Ivy League university. Frankly, Asian- Americans need no institutional benefits to gain admittance into top colleges. Fortunately, Justices Stephen Breyer and Sandra Day O’Connor stipulated that affirmative action was necessary for other less hypocritical reasons free of hypocrisy. Affirmative action should be implemented to create a more diverse environment. Justice Breyer writes, “[Without affirmative action] too many individuals of all races would lack experience with a racially diverse educational environment helpful for their later effective participation in today’s diverse civil society.” A study by the University of Michigan corroborates the benefits of a diverse learning environment: “Diverse learning environments enhance students’ critical-thinking skills, augment their understanding and tolerance of different opinions and groups, increase their motivation and participation in civic activities and better prepare them for living in a diverse society.” The Breyer justification merely supports providing benefits to the statistically under-represented minority—whoever that may be. This policy perpetuates no racial stereotypes because it merely acts as a boon toward the current social and economic state of a racial group—in twenty-five years, if Caucasians were under-represented at top universities and African-Americans were over-represented, this policy would aid Caucasians. The Bader-Ginsburg policy would not. The current system contains another problem. In their 1998 book The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, William G. Bowen, former President of Princeton, and Derek Bok, former President of Harvard found that more than half the black students admitted to 23 elite colleges in 1976 and 1989 would not have been admitted under race-neutral policies. I suggest colleges require a minimum academic cut-off for all applicants to curb this problem of under-qualified candidates. For this to be properly implemented, I suggest that while there be minimum GPA and SAT cut-offs, the cut-offs should take place on a sliding scale, so that a New England prep school applicant can compensate for his deflated grades with quality test scores. Additionally, an urban youth from Washington, DC can compensate for his school system’s inherent lack of test preparation by high grades. From this point, non-academic criteria can be used to determine admittance. Harvard University states that at least one third of rejected applicants could handle the course load at the University, yet “other factors” determine who receives admittance. Let race be one of those factors, but only after colleges determine who is academically qualified. And let race be weighed equally with other, in my opinion, equally important factors—low socioeconomic status, and first-generation college, for example. True diversity extends beyond race. Affirmative action is necessary to create an optimal learning environment, yet the current system contains inherent contradictions that allow opponents of affirmative action to legitimately cry for its absolute repeal. To preserve affirmative action, we must fix our hypocritical justifications and establish policy to remove academically unqualified candidates from admitted pools and look beyond race and place equal weight on other factors that create more student body diversity.