Guest Column: Race and college admissions

The Baltimore Sun

Anybody who has ever encountered the college admissions process knows that there’s no such thing as an even playing field. Most schools will admit that upfront. “Like all colleges,” Harvard College notes on its own admissions web site, “we seek to admit the most interesting, able, and diverse class possible.”

In other words, schools often try to balance out an incoming class with students who not only have good grades or high test scores but have had unusual life experiences as well as those they regard as “well-rounded.” Athletes often get preference (no surprise there), but so might a talented oboe player, actor or artist. There is no one set of criteria for the preferred applicant at Harvard or most anywhere else, as writing a particularly good application essay (or having a talented high school guidance counselor who knows how to edit one) can make a huge difference. It doesn’t necessarily involve an accomplishment, skill or talent but little more than chance in some cases — schools often look to balance gender, geography and disability, as well.

Given that reality, the desire of any state to specifically ban affirmative action in the college admissions process seems suspicious. If schools are going to consider all sorts of extenuating circumstances in the name of diversity, why not factor in a person’s race? Indeed, to refuse to consider it seems a form of racism itself — the only real effect of such a ban is to make it unusually difficult for minorities to gain admission to the college of their choice.

That point of view essentially won over the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled last November in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action that Michigan’s prohibition on public universities and colleges from using race as a factor in setting admissions policies violated the Equal Protection Clause. Michigan voters approved that ban as “Proposal 2,” an amendment to the state constitution in 2006, but as the appeals court pointed out, it essentially left minorities with an unusually high hurdle to now challenge college admissions policies.

Unfortunately, that argument didn’t seem to win over much of the conservative wing of the U.S. Supreme Court when the Schuette case was heard this week. Nor does it help the law’s opponents that Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from the case because she had worked on it while serving as the nation’s solicitor general. Still, even Justice Samuel A. Alito acknowledged at one point that it’s a “big deal” to now require a constitutional amendment to change the law.

Make no mistake, this isn’t about racial quotas. They have not been allowed since the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. But in that same decision, the high court ruled that using race as a criterion was allowed. In the last term, the Supreme Court had an opportunity to abandon affirmative action entirely but did not in Fisher V. Texas, ruling only that affirmative action policies must be closely reviewed.

Admittedly, the argument against a ban on affirmative action is not a slam-dunk. After all, wouldn’t any society’s ideal be to foster policies that were entirely blind to race? But such a proposal fails to consider the sad legacy of racial discrimination in this country and the inherent disadvantage it has left African-Americans and others.

According to the U.S. Census, about 18 percent of African-American adults over the age of 25 have a four-year college degree compared to nearly one-third of whites. African-Americans are far more likely to live in poverty and not have access to the sort of college-track high school courses and counseling that are available to others.

How does one break this cycle of poverty and missed opportunity? For decades, affirmative action programs have helped minorities make significant progress — righting the scales by tipping them against historical racial discrimination. Should states like Michigan and a handful of others be able to adopt laws that strip minorities of this kind of educational opportunity? That seems ill-advised.

Already, Michigan has experienced a drop in minority college enrollment. That ought to set off bells and whistles for the justices. Better to leave matters of admissions where they belong — in the hands of school administrators — and not allow policies like Proposal 2 that will ensure only that a disadvantaged group remains disadvantaged by race.