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By the Numbers: the affirmative action debate
Maintaining diversity in higher education
By Dr. Jamillah Moore
Reprinted with permission from Street Soldiers

Since the mid-to late 1990s there has been an attack on the use of race in college admissions. Many of these challenges comprised through ballot initiatives, legislation and court decisions have been successful and the result has brought about the elimination of affirmative action in the states of California, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Washington, and Georgia with other states to follow.

When college officials admit students based on a set of criteria and one of those criteria is ethnicity they are automatically criticized for giving an unfair preference. However, the first step in the admission process is the step of eligibility. All students must be eligible to be considered for admission, meaning they must meet all of the quantitative university requirements before they can apply. Eligibility is always left out of the equation in the affirmative action debate because so many individuals automatically assume that students of color are admitted unqualified or simply because of their race. For example, if a university’s requirement for admission is a 2.78 GPA, 1,000 SAT score and completion of college preparatory courses all students who fall within that “category” are “eligible” for admission to that institution. What this means is that the student is qualified and the university will accept their application for consideration.

Eligibility and admission are two different things. A student can be eligible to apply, but that does not mean they will automatically be admitted. The difference between eligibility and admission is a set of criteria or “preferences” the university will employ in making their decision on which students will get through the doors. Not all institutions use the same set of criteria. The most commonly used are those of geographic location, family background, and income level.

While affirmative action is being dismantled few colleges have done anything about certain preferences that still persist, which exclude minorities, such as, admission by exception (open enrollment), alumni legacies, affluent family admissions, and the sacred cow of special athletic admission. For example, many institutions like that of the University of Virginia give preferences to the son or daughter of an alumnus or students from wealthy families: these students are not always “eligible” for admission by the university’s own standards. In another example, the University of California engages in admission by exception where they will admit up to 4 percent of students who are not fully eligible, but can offer “special abilities” to the institution. These preferences equate more privileges to the halves while continuing to exclude the have-nots. Yet, these preferences are rarely part of the national debate.

After the elimination of Jim Crow laws and with the advent of the civil rights movement affirmative action was implemented to offer access and provide opportunities for underrepresented students who were historically, systematically excluded when institutions used the preference of “whites-only.” Three Hundred Thirty-Two years of racial segregation does not change that over night. While, this past spring some institutions were claiming they had made strides in increasing minority admits without the use of race, highly selective campuses were actually declining in minority admits. A prime example was the University of California. While the race ban of 1997 resulted in reductions in already small proportions of African Americans, Latinos, and Native American (underrepresented) students admitted and enrolled in the system for both undergraduate and graduate programs the changes in admission policies have resulted in small increases (one to two percentage points) compared to the initial ban. However, fewer racial minorities applied or are enrolled than in 1995 when the ban was first announced. Admission dropped for underrepresented applicants to Berkeley, San Diego, and Los Angeles campuses, so while there were higher system wide admission it was not extended to the selective campuses nor did it result in higher enrollment rates. The case was the same for Texas. According to the United States Commission on Civil Rights the outlawing of affirmative action programs in higher education in the state of Texas had a negative impact on black, Hispanic, and Native American enrollment at the University of Texas-Austin. In addition, although minority admission rates have increased at some schools, they have declined overall at the premier Texas law and medical schools.

There are three realities that must be present in the debate on racial diversity in college admissions. First, you cannot have racial diversity on a college campus without the use of race as criteria. Second, not everyone who applies gets in, so colleges and universities will always have to use a set of preferences in choosing students to admit.

Institutions not only need to acknowledge all of the preferences they use, but articulate the benefits the students admitted will bring to the institution. Third, until individuals understand the difference between eligibility and admission there will always be an assumption that any student admitted over another student with higher scores was not qualified. Until Americans have a working knowledge of how college admissions processes work there will always be one side to the story and the preservation of diversity on public college campuses will be allowed to diminish.


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