Let’s Agree: Racial Affirmative Action Failed

John Katzman and Steve Cohen, Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2017

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But we agree that race-based affirmative action hasn’t worked. Because of how it has played out in practical terms, it’s time for colleges to shift the policy from being based on race to income.

Affirmative action’s original intent was to incorporate more minority students, specifically blacks and Hispanics, into elite universities. But blacks and Hispanics have actually lost ground in the admissions race over the past 25 years, as recently reported by the New York Times. And while the original policy was intended to help minorities, Asian-American students feel they are taking the biggest hit. As a result, many have filed lawsuits against Ivy League schools such as Harvard, claiming that to gain admission, Asian-American students, on average, have to score 140 points higher on the SAT than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanic students, and 450 points higher than African-American students.

In tandem with shifting the basis for affirmative action, colleges need to be clearer about what qualifies students for admission. Many people believe that selective college admissions is, or should be, purely based on academic success. But the work of admissions officers is more complicated than finding the highest test scores. It’s more like casting a movie. They want to put together an incoming freshman class that has aspiring journalists for the school newspaper, great athletes for all the teams, debaters, musicians, actors, dancers, legacies, and development prospects.

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Standardized tests help admissions officers narrow their pools; they are still the most often used yardstick colleges have to compare applicants. But those tests are also very responsive to focused preparation. A new survey commissioned by Noodle found that Asian-American families spent more than twice as much money on test prep as any other group. This explains in part why Asian-American kids do so well on the exams. It’s not surprising that they are disappointed when their higher scores don’t result in admission to elite schools.

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In the 2003 pivotal decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that colleges should not need race-conscious decision policies in 25 years; that was 14 years ago.

Now is the time to make the switch from a “minority” bucket to a “grit” bucket—for applicants of any race who’ve risen above economic adversity—and to be transparent about this change. Whether on the left or right, fair people cannot begrudge a boost in the admissions process for a young person who overcomes poverty and inferior local schools.

{snip} Let’s explicitly reward students who have overcome disadvantaged financial beginnings, but not give one race an advantage over another. This is where we begin to create better outcomes and build a fairer, healthier system.

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