Thursday, February 20, 2003

Affirmative Distraction
With the briefs in the Michigan case just about due, I thought it was time to talk a bit about affirmative action. Both as someone who has thought about it a bit and as someone who will undoubtedly be effected by it. As I sit and write, my application is somewhere in the labyrinth of the U of M Law School admissions process (as well as nine other schools). I think that by now most people are familiar with the case and the issues, so I will abstain from burdening you with links.

What I think is important about this case, and affirmative action in higher education in general, is that there are two different arenas in which to view the policy- undergraduate admissions and graduate/professional school admissions. I think they warrant separate consideration and my own beliefs about affirmative action are different at the two levels.

When looking at undergraduate admissions it is important to recognize the reality of America's K-12 educational system. It is one in which the vast majority of poor and minority children attend resource poor public schools. They are more likely to have uncertified teachers, rookie teachers and less resources in terms of school books, technology and enrichment programs. Our country's public educational system almost befits the term apartheid. Yet, there are those minority children who are fortunate enough to be born into middle class and upper class families.

The effect of a colour blind admissions policy for undergraduate institutions would propagate the inequities of the K-12 system. Students without the advantages of qualified teachers, up to date textbooks, and classroom technology would be unable to compete with their better off peers. The quality of the end product of K-12 education is predominantly a factor of that education. That is not to say that inherent intellectual ability will be lost or missed, but that it is an unfair burden placed on poor and minority children by society. And that is why I believe in affirmative action at the undergraduate level. I hesitate to add that I might be more comfortable with affirmative action if it were class based rather than race based. I can see no compelling reason for Colin Powell's or Condi Rice's children to receive any boost in the admissions process.

However, I see graduate/professional school admissions as an entirely different beast. By that point, students have completed at least four years of higher education and therefore the differences that were present at the end of secondary school should have been minimized (by differences, I mean those attributable to poor K-12 schooling). Of course, that is not to say that in certain fields minorities are under-represented. Yet the solution to that problem lies in the financial aid process, not in admissions. Institutions must make graduate and professional schooling attractive and economical to under-represented minorities through the provision of grants and scholarships. Access to graduate school means not just admitting qualified minority students, but enabling them to attend.

Further, I should make clear that my support of affirmative action for undergraduate admissions does not suggest that I am in favor of accepting unqualified poor or minority students. Rather it is an endorsement of looking beyond qauntitative factors that may be more influenced by environment than by native ability.


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