The US Supreme Court last month heard arguments in two cases that could overturn decades of precedent that have allowed the use of race as one of many factors in making decisions about admission to our nation’s colleges and universities, the Chicago Tribune reported as part of an op-ed written by Michael Schill, president of Northwestern University and former president of the University of Oregon and dean of the law schools of the University of Chicago and the University of California at Los Angeles.
Overturning those precedents, established in a majority opinion written by retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Grutter v Bollinger, he claims, “would cause lasting damage to American universities and to our nation.”
Not only have non-Whites been subject to racial prejudice throughout US history, but many of those prejudices continue to limit opportunities for persons of color today, including housing segregation, the availability of educational resources, a history of Jim Crow laws, and other factors.
But race-conscious admissions decisions aren’t only about individual students, he argues. Instead, they benefit entire communities of learning and governing. “Evidence strongly suggests that we learn more and make better decisions—in education, government and business—if we are part of a diverse group. This phenomenon will only increase as our country becomes still more multicultural.”
One student at New Trier High School in Winnetka, a northern suburb of Chicago, expressed some solidarity with Mr Schill’s opinions, according to an article by Sarah Lin in the school’s student newspaper.
“I get to go to New Trier. I get to do all these amazing things and amazing opportunities that make my college application look better, purely because of the money my family has,” the senior student was quoted as saying. “And the reason we were able to possess that money is because of the privilege we were given being white Americans.”
As the New Trier senior observed, white privilege is real, and affirmative action represents a way for the government to compensate Blacks for the reduced opportunity afforded them. In the case of college admissions, universities add points to the applications of Black students so that, while their résumés may not look as good as those of White students—fewer extracurriculars, a lower GPA, and lower test scores—their overall point values, known as a holistic approach to evaluating college applications, are roughly equal.
In this way, the university does not discriminate against White students illegally. Instead, it adjusts the application scores of Black students who have overcome the challenge of systemic racism and prejudice. Using race as the predominant factor in making admissions decisions would be illegal, but the cases before the Supreme Court ask the Court to rule on whether race can be used at all.
Furthermore, while the government can, through affirmative action like race-conscious college admissions policies, recognize that Blacks have had fewer opportunities to achieve at higher levels and have had to work harder for what they have achieved, the government can do nothing to increase the level of achievement itself. How much Black—or White—students achieve is up to each individual, and the government is powerless to change that.
This is why affirmative action in admissions decisions spurs such a lively debate among all segments of society. Despite decades of affirmative action, Black students, especially or maybe exclusively those in poor neighborhoods, have failed to demonstrate gains in the level of achievement. From a data analysis perspective, affirmative action in college admissions has been ineffective for individual Blacks. Yes, individual achievement improves if school officials convey positive messages about students’ racial group. But telling Black students they need extra race-based points just to be considered at the same level as White students is not such a positive message about Blacks.
So has affirmative action in college admissions benefited universities or society in general? Such a research question is outside our scope, but I know that putting the decision in the hands of Supreme Court justices is likely to yield little thought on what is best for individual students.