Affirmative Action in College Admissions Threatened

October 10, 2012

By Robert J. Massa

This week, the Supreme Court will take up the issue of affirmative action in college admissions. It will not be the first time.  Time and again, from the original Bakke case in the 1970s to the University of Michigan case in the 2000s, the Supreme Court has held that race may be one factor in college admissions, especially (as in the Michigan case) when an affirmative action policy is narrowly tailored to address past discrimination.

Unquestionably, race continues to be a charged issue in our society.  Use it as one factor to determine who is admitted to a college, and tempers flare.  Cries of “FOUL” can be heard everywhere.  Lawsuits are filed.

The plaintiff in the University of Texas case, herself a Texan, could not qualify for admission based on being in the top 10% of her high school class.  Three-quarters of the undergraduates at the University of Texas are admitted that way.  Instead, she competed for a spot in the freshman class of 2008 on a “holistic basis” with other students who ranked lower in their high school class.  Here, many other factors are considered outside of grades and test scores.  Diversity of the student body is likely one goal that is sought through this candidate evaluation.

I have been an administrator at private colleges and universities for almost four decades.  Granted, admissions offices at private colleges operate under a somewhat different mandate than those at public institutions.  But the principles are similar.  We are trying to admit not only the “best class” academically, but one that is vibrant, exciting, diverse and talented.  Diverse, of course, means not only skin color, but geographic diversity, diversity of interests and diversity of talents.  Basically, we attempt to build a community of individuals who will learn from and with each other.  When we are different from one another, our traditional beliefs are challenged, our comfort zone is stretched and our learning is deepened.

Admission to college has never been exclusively about curriculum, grades and test scores. Are these important factors?  You bet they are. We surely do not want to admit students whose background ill prepares them for what they will encounter in college.  But among those students who can be successful at our institutions are those with special talents (a quarterback or a oboe player), those who bring a different geographic perspective (an east coast college seeking Nebraskans or students from center city Philadelphia), those who are underrepresented in certain fields (women in engineering) and, dare I say it, those who have a family connection.  Typically there are no “quotas,” but rather a guiding admissions philosophy that seeks to “sculpt” an interesting and well-qualified class out of qualified applicants.

Affirmative Action can certainly be abused.  But when used appropriately, as I believe it is in a vast majority of institutions, Affirmative Action policies can provide opportunities to qualified and highly motivated students who have grown up without access to advantages afforded to others from wealthier families.  When we have diversity in all of its forms on the nation’s college campuses, we all benefit.
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Robert J. Massa is Vice President for Communications at Lafayette College.  Prior to joining Lafayette, Robert Massa spent a decade as Dean of Enrollment at Johns Hopkins University and another ten years as the VP for Enrollment and College Relations at Dickinson College.

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