By Robert Weissberg
Surprise, surprise. Affirmation action for college admissions is yet one more time in the hands of the Supreme Court (Fisher v. Texas). Given the Court's changed personnel from the last go around (Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 2003), race-based preferences may soon be history. But, would this judicial outcome finally doom preferences? Opponents of affirmative might wish to hold off celebrating.
To appreciate the ingeniousness of those who believe that "fairness" now means unfairness, consider how the Obama administration a few months ago "outlawed" racial preferences. Last December, perhaps anticipating the Fisher case, the Obama Justice and Education Departments issued "guidance" against explicitly considering race in college admission policies but--and this is a huge but--schools were instead advised to use (voluntarily) varied proxies for race to boost black admission. These substitutes included socio-economic status, overcoming hardship or residential instability. Preferences can also be given to students graduating from high schools with high concentrations of minority students. The aim was to promote diversity and, supposedly, avoid the racial isolation of minority students (a diverse student body will "...help students sharpen their critical thinking and analytical skills" and thereby succeed in an increasingly global marketplace).
Was this initiative really a gift to help blacks attend top-notch universities? This is a toxic gift and while a tiny handful might benefit, most will waste a year or two struggling to overcome inadequate academic preparation, time better spent at a lesser institution equipped to serve unprepared students. Even a diploma may be an empty prize if it is in a vocationally useless major (e.g., "Communication Studies"). In effect, forcing universities to admit students who require expensive remediation is yet one more unfunded federal mandate, just what many financially struggling universities need.
A little thought will demonstrate the foolishness of this "help." First, nearly all top universities already have extensive recruitment programs targeting blacks and it is an open secret that many of these enrollee recruits are less academically qualified than those otherwise admitted. Finding additional black recruits from troubled schools with high dropout rates and then admitting them is, to be blunt, mining an already depleted stock of talent. How many talented but previously overlooked black students will be discovered thanks to these newly imposed proxy indicators? The answer, I suspect, is zero.
But lowering academic standards certainly guarantees more bureaucratic bloat. Universities will now need more admission officers skilled at searching college essays to detect signs, however faint, of overcoming hardship. After that, it's on to assessing parental educational attainment, finding evidence of residential mobility and uncovering similar traits beyond the obvious ones of SAT scores or class rank. For those unacquainted with university jargon, such Talmudic scrutiny is called "holistic" or "individualized" review. Of course verification will be verboten--this might disqualify some promising applicants (and one wonders how many non-minority students will now game the system). One suggested minority enrollment boosting measure are pipeline programs--universities collaborating with high schools to arrange campus stays, summer programs, even having college faculty visit high schools. Also suggested is advertising in media favored by minority groups or admission office visits to activities popular among targeted youngsters.
Many of these new outreach employees will undoubtedly be minorities themselves. After all, only those with shared cultural characteristics ("cultural competence") are sensitive to the experiences of those under-achieving students. What university will send middle-class whites to interview prospective enrollees in, say, Detroit schools? Hundreds of interviewers might have to be hired to find these needles in the haystack. Nor should we forget hiring deans to formulate the guidelines vital to keep this enhanced admission search legally kosher (imagine all the meetings and reports needed to define "economically disadvantaged" and then devise the newly updated admission formula).
Next comes an army of more tutors, writing instructors, residential advisors and coordinators plus untold other academic counselors to rescue these youngsters. Remediation classes will multiply and all the instruction must be supervised and coordinated. Conferences will be required so schools can share successful techniques.
But, don't forget retention. A revolving door of easy admission follow by a quick departure will surely elicit Washington's ire, so new majors might have to be developed, or old-standbys expanded to avoid the dropout factory stigma. New faculty may have to be hired in Black Studies, Urban Studies, Recreation Studies, Sports Management and all the other disciplines with a soft spot for academically limited minority students.
This "guidance" is clearly a sop to Obama's black constituents demanding a payback. The legal window dressing is comically convoluted if not embarrassing. Everything is supposed to be "race neutral" to satisfy court decisions but the message--get more black students by hook or crook--is inescapable. This is shameless racial pandering and I predict that the guidelines will soon vanish save at the most racially PC universities (and these hardly need encouragement to use subterfuges to admit blacks). The possible damage, however, far exceeds squandered university resources. Far greater is the harm from telling countless black youngsters that the pathway to a decent college (and then to the middle class) is political muscle, not diligence. Now, thanks to Uncle Eric, colleges will be forced to admit you regardless of ability or accomplishment. A more debilitating strategy is hard to imagine for those youngsters thinking about college. No need to study harder, enroll in a cram academy or use the internet for self-improvement; better to elect a president who will appoint a sympathetic Attorney General, and he will put the thumb screws on the Admission Office. By official decree, becoming educated is now about voting, not learning.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at The University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.