Color and Money: How Rich White Kids are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action
by Peter Schmidt
Reviewed by George C. Leef
Exactly how important is a college degree from a prestige school? Many believe that having such a degree is extremely important - a virtual guarantee of success in life. The higher education establishment works hard at propounding the idea that without a college degree, a young person's life will be one of almost Hobbesian misery and the elite institutions go a step further and portray themselves as the essential training grounds for the nation's leaders. If you accept those views, the destiny of the nation is largely shaped by who goes to college and where.
Peter Schmidt has swallowed them hook, line, and sinker, which isn't surprising for a reporter who has been immersed in higher education for many years. In his new book Color and Money he writes, "In modern American society, many of us assume - or at least desperately hope - that the people in leading positions in government, business, and the professions are our best and brightest... How do we decide who deserves such status? Generally, we rely on academic credentials. We entrust the task of identifying and training our best and brightest to our elite higher education institutions..."
If you start with the belief that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and their peers have a special national mission and then add the egalitarian notion that all groups in society should be roughly equal in representation, the conclusion follows irresistibly: We must get more students from "underrepresented minorities" into elite colleges. That is the mission of affirmative action.
Schmidt writes that his book is intended to give an "honest discussion" of affirmative action. In my view, however, it's a heavily colored discussion that leans strongly in its favor and never does justice to the arguments of its opponents. Color and Money doesn't descend to the level of a screed, but neither does it give the reader a balanced understanding of the pros and cons.
Despite the fact that serious scholars across the political spectrum have found affirmative action to be legally, morally, and educationally dubious, Schmidt can't resist casting the opposition as based mainly on the opportunism of right-wing Republicans eager to create a "wedge issue" to divide white, middle-class voters from the Democrats. His dislike of conservatives and their beliefs pervades the book and prevents him from looking deeply at the problems in the case for admissions preferences. A good analogy might be to the Duke lacrosse case: many of the members of the faculty were so wrapped up in their animosity toward the accused players that they couldn't even consider the possibility that the case against them was full of holes. Schmidt doesn't like conservative types and never gives their case against affirmative action the journalistic equivalent of due process.
Affirmative action doesn't mean that more students will go to college than otherwise. It simply redistributes them. Without affirmative action, only a small number of students from "underrepresented minority groups" would be admitted to elite universities because few of them have the academic profile those schools want: A averages in high school, lots of advanced placement courses, and SAT scores in the top 5 percent. A minority student (we'll call him Bill Smith) with a B+ average and an SAT score at the 75th percentile will go to college, but at a less prestigious institution. Let's say that Bill is a Virginian. He wouldn't go to Harvard or UVA, but perhaps William and Mary, Old Dominion, or one of the many private liberal arts colleges where his abilities place him squarely in their admission ranges.
With affirmative action, however, Bill may be among those few who are chosen for a spot at one of the elite universities. That may turn out well for him. But affirmative action is a zero-sum game - a student who would otherwise have been offered admission at the elite university will have to be rejected. That student will still go to college, of course, but at one of his "backup" schools.
Do those outcomes matter very much? No. Bill will probably earn his degree from Elite U. (although a fair number of affirmative action students transfer or drop out for academic reasons), but does that mean a superior education? No. The professors at Elite U. are not any more knowledgeable or better at teaching than are the professors at "lesser" schools. In fact, students might find it easier to get help from a professor at a non-elite school. What about Bill's future? Having a diploma from a prestige institution might be a benefit to him in landing his first job, but after that, how he fares in life will depend on his own productivity. Academic credentials don't count for anything in the competitive world. Results do, and elite schools don't necessarily make a student better at whatever his occupation may be.
The student who was rejected from Elite U. will undoubtedly graduate from his college. That won't be a tragedy, although he might have been able to progress faster in a more rigorous academic environment. How he succeeds in life will be little affected by the fact that he went to a "backup" school.
In sum, there's no reason to believe that anything big is accomplished by choosing a few minority students as winners in the affirmative action lottery and demoting a few students to make room for them. Some research - and Schmidt does mention one study - supports the view that where one goes to college makes little difference in the long-run. The diploma from Elite U. is neither necessary nor sufficient for a successful life.
But won't at least some of the students who benefit from affirmative action also benefit from having a degree from the prestige school in that it may open up more possibilities for them? Suppose that Bill Smith is able to get a job with a big company that wouldn't have otherwise interviewed him and that job turns out to be ideal for him. He enjoys a great career. Wouldn't that be proof that affirmative action is a good policy because it helps to advance blacks? No. What affirmative action has done is to advance Bill Smith. The few students who have better careers than otherwise don't spread their good fortune around to the rest of "their" group.
I bring that point up because Schmidt, like other affirmative action supporters, writes as though a policy of favoring applicants from a few groups is a means of advancing the group itself. Affirmative action to aid a few students like Bill Smith no more improves conditions for blacks in America than, for example, the money Schmidt received for his book can be said to improve conditions for education writers. The individuals who gain (at least in terms of college prestige) are overwhelmingly people who come from stable, prosperous families and would do well in life with or without any racial preferences. It's erroneous to think that affirmative action is bringing about a socio-economic transformation of the country.
Affirmative action is at best a zero-sum game when viewed in its totality, but there are good reasons to believe that it's actually a negative-sum game. Schmidt touches only briefly on one reason for believing so, namely the argument that affirmative action mismatches students with schools. Placing a weak student in an environment dominated by far more able ones is apt to have bad consequences more often than not. Thomas Sowell has been making that argument for more than twenty years. Schmidt doesn't mention Sowell, but does discuss the findings of UCLA law professor Richard Sander, who has studied the record of affirmative action students in the top California law schools. Sander concludes that racial preferences have had a negative impact because many of the students thus admitted end up near the bottom of their graduating classes. To the extent that law firms evaluate prospects not just on the law school they attended, but also on class standing, the mismatching is detrimental to the goal of increasing the numbers of lawyers from minority groups. The "mismatch" argument has strong intuitive appeal and Sander's research buttresses it.
Other reasons have been advanced to show the educational harm done by affirmative action, but Schmidt doesn't mention them. One of them is the idea that so long as students in preferred groups know that affirmative action gives them a big edge, they won't work as hard in their pre-college studies. The late John Ogbu, a University of California sociologist, concluded that the "safety net" provided by affirmative action was a large part of the explanation for the fact that black students from affluent suburban families performed poorly in comparison with their white and Asian classmates.
The possibility that affirmative action retards minority students from achieving to the best of their ability in school ought to give its advocates pause, but seems not to. Zealous defenders of race preferences dismiss all contrary arguments as "racist" or, if made by blacks, "Uncle-Tomism." Schmidt includes a chapter on the childish and often thuggish group that goes by the name By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) who attempt to defend affirmative action by shouting, shoving, disrupting, and harassing those who disagree with them. Their antics have absolutely no intellectual merit, but Schmidt gives BAMN plenty of ink in a chapter subtitled "Black Voices Fight to be Heard." That would have been a logical place to include the opposition from black scholars who really do have to fight to be heard (and who are almost always vilified for saying what they believe), but Schmidt passes them over. You'd think that in an "honest discussion," the arguments of scholars who think that affirmative action is detrimental to its supposed beneficiaries would carry more weight than the moronic tactics of BAMN.
Yet another argument on the educational harm of affirmative action is that it mixes together students of markedly different academic ability and motivation. Doing that creates a problem for professors. If they teach at a level gauged to challenge the majority of the students, those admitted under affirmative action may find it impossible to keep up and maintain acceptable grades. On the other hand, if the professor waters down the content of his course and makes it less challenging, the brighter students are short-changed. Some professors admit to taking the latter route, which avoids the potential difficulties involved in giving low grades to students the school is especially eager to retain. You won't find that problem discussed in Color and Money.
Affirmative action has also been criticized on non-educational grounds. For one thing, it tends to bring about a tense and racially polarized campus where the constant focus on group identity - segregated dorms, specialized cultural centers, separate orientations, and so on - divides students and detracts from the learning environment. Another is that by admitting many poorly qualified minority students, affirmative action undermines the achievements of those who succeed entirely on their own merit. Clarence Thomas isn't the only black person to have said that affirmative action caused people to suspect that his educational achievements weren't really earned. Those arguments don't make it into Schmidt's "honest discussion" either.
What about the arguments in favor of affirmative action? On that score, Schmidt is too credulous. He devotes several pages to the amicus briefs in the University of Michigan cases wherein big business and the military expressed their support for affirmative action. The amicus brief submitted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that affirmative action was essential to national security because the armed services need to have racial diversity to avoid the kinds of troubles that beset the military during the Vietnam conflict. No doubt a racially diverse officer corps is important, but that can still be achieved without the policy of giving racial preferences at selective colleges and universities.
As for business, their briefs trotted out the notion that "diversity" was important for them to be able to compete in a global economy. That assertion merits a lot of skepticism. Why should it be the case that an American black or Hispanic student is more valuable to a company that wishes to sell products globally than anyone else? If a firm really needs cultural expertise to deal with customers in Africa or South America, there is no reason to think that black or Hispanic Americans innately have it or are better able to learn it than are others. Furthermore, all affirmative action does is to redistribute where minority students get their degrees. Employers can still get whatever "diversity" they think they need without it. They'll just have to recruit at some schools below the top level. Schmidt at least acknowledges that the briefs submitted by the business community might be regarded more as public relations efforts than as true statements of belief since many of them were signed by companies that had been the targets of lawsuits over alleged employment discrimination. I think it's obvious that supporting affirmative action was a public relations move with all upside and no downside. Businesses sang its praises, but the idea that they would suffer if it were ended is impossible to credit.
Schmidt devotes several pages to the pro-affirmative action briefs, but has nothing to say about the opposing briefs from groups such as the National Association of Scholars and the Center for Equal Opportunity. That is another of the many instances of how the book is slanted.
The facts, I believe, warrant this conclusion: Affirmative action is a costly and divisive policy with little or no educational or socio-economic benefit. It doesn't produce lasting, substantial gains for the students it supposedly helps; it causes serious educational problems; it doesn't do anything to improve conditions for people in "underrepresented groups."
Why, then, do we find such vehemence from affirmative action's supporters, including the sometimes tendentious writing in this book? Why does Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan, spew out defiant rhetoric reminiscent of George Wallace when voters say "no" to race preferences? Why does BAMN feel justified in resorting to bullying anyone who opposes affirmative action?
The answer, I believe, is that affirmative action is one of those symbols that works on certain people at an emotional, non-rational level. The liberal intelligentsia is captivated with affirmative action. They badly want to make the world a better place and are habituated to thinking along central-planning lines. Affirmative action dovetails perfectly: It's supposed to solve social injustices and does so through purposeful action by well-intentioned people. To be told that this symbol is contrary to the law or that it is actually counterproductive is abhorrent to them, especially since that message overwhelmingly comes from the despised "right."
Pushing affirmative action and the entire "diversity" agenda brings a sense of fulfillment to the academic left. Those are people who look askance at conservative symbols revolving around patriotism and "family values," but they can't see that affirmative action is precisely the same kind of thing. For the Mary Sue Colemans of America, it isn't enough merely to educate the best students who apply. That won't satisfy the urge to promote their vision of "social justice." Affirmative action doesn't really accomplish anything, but it's all they have and they won't abandon this symbol of their righteousness any more than religious conservatives will abandon the fight against Roe v. Wade.
There is one more point that needs to be addressed - those "rich white kids" who are "winning" the affirmative action war. Except in states where voters have decided to ban racial preferences, affirmative action is not being curtailed, much less defeated. Still, Schmidt raises an important question: Why should the children of wealthy people who can donate millions to a college or university receive favorable treatment in admissions? Is it fair that a much sharper student should be rejected to make room in the freshman class for a rich white kid with a mediocre academic record? He doesn't think so.
I'm inclined to agree. Elite schools could dispense with what we might call "affirmative action for the wealthy," but doing so would have some significant consequences. Former Harvard president Derek Bok has written that just like gambling addicts and exiled royalty, college presidents think that there is never enough money. True-blue liberal intellectuals like "social justice," but they also like to keep the coffers filled, thereby enabling universities to keep putting up lavish buildings, hiring six-figure professors who rarely teach a class, adding new administrative fiefdoms, and numerous other expenditures having little or nothing to do with teaching students. If elite schools wanted to curb their spending appetites, they could stop giving admission preferences to rich white kids and admit more of the high achievers (frequently Asians) who now get shuffled down to second-tier universities.
That would be a good move. Even better would be to end all sorts of preferences, racial and financial, and just admit the brightest students who want to attend. That isn't the conclusion Schmidt wants people to draw, but I believe it's the only sensible one.
George Leef is Vice President for Research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.