As a student from a high school that was equally divided between black and Caucasian students, the value of diversity has always been one of my primary concerns. When I began my college search, I looked for schools that had a good level of diversity, racially, socioeconomically and in terms of gender. I wanted to attend a university that could be a microcosm of the United States, with people of many different races and backgrounds. And although, in the real world, people of different races and backgrounds don’t necessarily live in the same neighborhoods and attend the same schools, I hoped that college would be a place where I could get to know and interact with many different types of people.
Looking back, I have had a wonderful experience at Yale, meeting and befriending students of diverse backgrounds. Unfortunately, my experience and the experiences of students throughout the United States are being threatened by the attack on affirmative action. President Bush’s statement claiming that the University of Michigan utilizes quotas in its admissions policy and that the “10 percent” plan in Texas is the best plan to achieve campus diversity are two very problematic arguments.
In the Bakke case, the Supreme Court found that diversity was a compelling interest for state colleges and universities. President Bush, in his statement agreed with the interest in diversity at the college level. I agree that diversity is a compelling interest for all schools. Students today will live in a world that requires an understanding of different cultures and identities. As our country’s demographic character changes, so should the schools, colleges and universities. The U.S. census recently reported that Hispanics have surpassed blacks as the largest minority population. At the same time, some predict that within the next 60 years, Caucasians will be a minority population as well. These demographic changes necessitate even greater attention to racial and ethnic diversity, not a rollback of affirmative action. Students who did not attend diverse schools, whether on the high school or college level will be at a marked disadvantage in today’s world.
Affirmative action is the best system to ensure a diverse environment on the college level, because they consider each applicant individually, as well as promoting the diversity of schools on the secondary level. The various “percentage plans” in Florida, Texas and California take all students who are within a certain percentile. Whether 10, 15 or 20 percent of students are accepted based primarily on their class rank. These plans depend on racially segregated public schools within those states. In all of these states, as within the rest of the United States, schools are as segregated as they were in the 1970s. It is this type of segregation in the public school systems that make the percentage plans viable options in those states. I don’t think that a system built on segregation is the best system for insuring diversity. If diversity were the President’s stated goal, then why would he support a program that depends on segregation at the primary and secondary levels?
The University of Michigan case has thrust affirmative action into the national spotlight again. The University of Michigan, one of the largest universities in the nation has an admissions policy that utilizes a point system. According to the admissions office Web site, applicants can receive up to 150 points on the “selection index worksheet listing factors the University believes important in composing a class.” Of these 150 available points, only 40 are awarded for factors beyond academic achievement. This means that most of the point to be gained or lost are simply due to GPA and standardized test scores, as well as the strength of the school, and whether or not the applicant took Advanced Placement or honors classes. An applicant to the University of Michigan from an underrepresented minority group can only gain 20 of the available 40 points simply on this status alone. These same 20 points are available also to students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, students (presumably minority or majority) who attended a predominantly minority high school, student athletes, or “at the Provost’s discretion.”
This system awards 20 points for a variety of factors that are not limited to race but also take into account economic disenfranchisement as well as athletic prowess. If the admission process were simply a system of quotas, then it would be a system in which a specific number of minority students were admitted, regardless of their academic achievement. The number of points awarded for being a member of an underrepresented minority group only account for 13 percent of the available points. The system is not based on quotas, but on a commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in higher education.
According to these standards, the University of Michigan values racial, economic and even athletic diversity equally, awarding the same number of points for each possible factor. If the university values racial and economic diversity, they can’t simply look at SAT scores and GPA to achieve this goal; instead, they must look at all of the factors. They can’t simply accept students who are within the top 10 percent of their high school class; they must consider other factors as well. Especially, in an age where higher SAT scores are available to those who can pay for a Kaplan course, and socioeconomic disadvantage and race seem to go hand in hand, it is necessary that these are factors are taken into account, and affirmative action remains the best way to ensure a diverse student body.
On nearly all campuses, excepting historically black colleges and universities, there was affirmative action for white males. It was a system where no applications were accepted from people of color, let alone considered with the rest of the application pool. Diversity is a goal, not simply to have pictures for the admissions booklet, but to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to pursue higher education. It is a goal, because it has not been achieved. Racial disparities in educational achievement have not gone away, as socioeconomic disparities continue to inhibit the progress of the poverty-stricken. It is imperative that affirmative action continues to provide the remedy for the disadvantages that continue to exist in access to higher education.
Najah Farley is a senior in Calhoun College.