Monday, April 23, 2007

Getting Beyond Race in College Admissions

John Fund of the Wall Street Journal ponders the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and takes issue with her view of affirmative action.

It’s true that O’Connor is not a fanatical quota advocate. She has said that racial preferences should be seen as “a temporary bandage, rather than a permanent cure.”

What’s disturbing is that liberals were saying the same thing in the early 1970s, when the first racial preference cases were coming to the Supreme Court. The “temporary” expedient isn’t looking so temporary today, especially when there is a whole cadre of activists, affirmative action bureaucrats and liberal politicians supporting it.

Fund continues:
She seemed strangely unaware, however, of the growing evidence that racial preferences might have actually decreased the likelihood that blacks and Hispanics will graduate from college. Put differently, if the body of evidence is correct, the whole affirmative action enterprise has been deeply and tragically flawed from the beginning, failing to achieve its most basic aim: increasing the number of minority college graduates, doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

Other panelists at the Powell symposium discussed the work of UCLA law professor Richard Sander, which shows that minority law students in California who attend law schools at which their academic credentials do not match the credentials of other students are less likely to pass the bar exam than they would have been if they had attended less prestigious law schools where their academic credentials would have been closer to the norm. As a result, according to Mr. Sander, there are fewer minority lawyers than there would have been under colorblind admissions. Justice O’Connor did not attend the rest of the symposium and made no reference to the Sander study in her remarks.

Moreover, Justice O’Connor’s comments about UCLA obscured an important and promising real story. While it’s true that black and Hispanic enrollment at UCLA and Berkeley went down after Prop 209, these students simply didn’t just vanish. The vast majority were admitted on the basis of their academic record to somewhat less highly ranked campuses of the prestigious 10-campus UC system, which caters only to the top one-eighth of California’s high school graduates. In the immediate wake of Proposition 209, the number of minority students at some of the nonflagship campuses went up, not down.

This “cascading” effect has had real benefits in matching students with the campus where they are most likely to do well. Despite what affirmative action supporters often imply, academic ability matters. Although some students will outperform their entering credentials and some students will underperform theirs, most students will succeed in the range that their high school grades and SAT scores predict. Leapfrogging minority candidates into elite colleges where they often become frustrated and fail hurts them even more than the institutions. It creates the illusion that we are closing racial disparities in education when in fact we are not. While blacks and Hispanics now attend college at nearly the same rate as whites, only about 1 in 6 graduates.

Affirmative action often creates the illusion that black or other minority students cannot excel. At the University of California at San Diego, in the year before race-based preferences were abolished in 1997, only one black student had a freshman-year GPA of 3.5 or better. In other words, there was a single black honor student in a freshman class of 3,268. In contrast, 20% of the white students on campus had a 3.5 or better GPA.

There were lots of black students capable of doing honors work at UCSD. But such students were probably admitted to Harvard, Yale or Berkeley, where often they were not receiving an honor GPA. The end to racial preferences changed that. In 1999, 20% of black freshmen at UCSD boasted a GPA of 3.5 or better after their first year, almost equaling the 22% rate for whites after their first year. Similarly, failure rates for black students declined dramatically at UCSD immediately after the implementation of Proposition 209. Isn’t that better for everyone in the long run?
Then there is the claim that affirmative action preferences benefit the “disadvantaged.” After all, aren’t all blacks disadvantaged?
Racial preferences were intended to help disadvantaged minorities, but in reality they have been turned into a spoils system for the privileged. “Most go to children of powerful politicians, civil-rights activists, and other relatively well-off blacks and Hispanics,” says Stuart Taylor of National Journal. “This does nothing for the people most in need of help, who lack the minimal qualifications to get into the game.”
This situation reminds us of the old quip that foreign aid is a subsidy from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.

And indeed, Fund produces statistics to show that disadvantaged whites have been hurt by race-based preferences, while privileged black students have -- if not exactly been helped -- gotten into schools beyond what their qualifications justified.

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