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When Good Intentions Go Awry
by Murray Soupcoff
20 January 2003 

The Case Against Racial Preferences In University Admissions Programs.

The biggest battle in the cultural wars in America will likely occur when the case for and against affirmative action (read racial preferences) in college and university admissions is argued before the Supreme Court later this year (regarding the constitutionality of admission programs that gave black and Hispanic students an edge when applying to the University of Michigan and its law school). And certainly, the case against racial preferences is always a difficult issue for foes of affirmative action to debate with "fairness" advocates, without being branded racist, uncaring or championing the preservation of systemic social inequities. For example, when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas voiced his personal opposition to affirmative action, Jackson asserted that Thomas had committed "a brutally violent act paving the way back toward slavery." Talk about verbal overkill.

Regardless, one scholar who always brings clarity and the calm voice of reason to this volatile subject is venerable Hoover Institution scholar, Thomas Sowell (who incidentally is black). For example, here's how Thomas Sowell framed one of the core arguments against racial preferences in university admissions in a recent online TownHall.com opinion piece entitled, Quotas On Trial:

[T]he issue is not whether any black students should be admitted to elite colleges. The issue is whether they should be admitted under the same standards as others.

Other studies have confronted that issue. At universities where the test scores of black and white students are similar, their graduation rates have been similar. At universities where there are wide gaps between the average test scores of black and white students, there are usually wide gaps between their graduation rates.

At the flagship University of Colorado campus at Boulder, where the average SAT score of black students was more than 200 points lower than that of white students, only 39 percent of the black students graduated, compared to 72 percent of the whites.

At the University of Colorado at Denver, however, where the difference in SAT scores was only 30 points, half of all black students and 48 percent of all white students graduated within a six-year span. Where there were negligible differences in qualifications, there were negligible differences in results.

In other words, affirmative-action admission programs based on an acknowledged policy of lowering admission standards for minority students may only have short-term race-based 'equity' consequences -- ensuring the admission of greater numbers of minority students in the first year class of freshmen, as well as ensuring greater racial diversity within that freshman class. But in the end, such racial-preference policies may have far greater unintended negative consequences. For example, they may place many of the minority-member beneficiaries of such programs on a fast track to failure, since the quota-favored minority students are not scholastically qualified to compete against their fellow first-year students in a merit-based university academic setting.

For many "beneficiaries" of such race-based largesse, then, the unintended consequence of such well-intentioned but harmful "equity" programs can be an enduring sense of being in over their heads. And the result too often is that such students underachieve, drop out before graduation, or receive failing grades.

Not surprisingly, the sense of inferiority that such programs are designed to alleviate for recruited minority students is often increased by such negative undergraduate experiences. And any negative stereotypes, regarding the scholastic abilities of minorities held by fellow students, are only confirmed.

In contrast, minority high-school graduates who are not the beneficiaries of such racial preferences in university admissions may be compelled to attend less prestigious or lower-ranked institutions of higher learning, but are likely to find themselves competing against similarly-qualified fellow undergraduates. As a result, they are more likely to achieve better grades in university, drop out less, and qualify to graduate.

The educational institution they attend may not be as prestigious or "racially diverse" as better-known universities which pride themselves on their race-based affirmative action programs. And the educational institutions they attend may not be the recipients of media applause for their "openness" and "fairness." But the minority students who are admitted into such lower-tier educational institutions may still have the best chance of experiencing the greatest life-event contributor to personal and racial pride -- the experience of self-earned achievement and success.

Of course, the most convincing argument against racial preferences in university admissions is that such a race-based policy does not benefit the target group it is purportedly aimed at, economically-disadvantaged blacks and other minority groups. That's because race-based affirmative action in university admissions has become a panacea for underachieving middle-class minority high-school students. For this is the unintended but privileged target group which benefits most from today's quota-based affirmative-action programs in America's universities.

For example, among black students in the last class admitted to Berkeley under Berkeley's now abandoned racial-preferences affirmative action program, more than 65 percent of these minority students came from households earning at least $40,000 a year. And the parents of 40 percent of those students earned at least $60,000 annually.

Unfortunately, the lesson conveyed to affluent minority high-school underachievers is that even if they continue their slacker ways in high school, the color of their skin will be the great "equalizer," gaining them admission to even the nation's most prestigious universities at the expense of better qualified white and Asian students.

In other words, racial preferences in university admissions actually serve as a disincentive for high-school educational achievement for the many middle-class minority students such programs ultimately benefit. And unfortunately, as Thomas Sowell's depressing statistics indicate, this initial race-based educational "leg up" only ensures later educational failure, as these under-qualified and under-achieving beneficiaries of racial quotas face the more level, merit-based academic playing field of undergraduate studies.

As for all those poor minority students in the black slums and hispanic barrios who most Americans imagine benefit from the helping hand of progressive racial-preference admissions policies in today's universities, what happens to them? Well, let's be realistic. What always seems to happen to the advertised targets of liberal-left social largesse?

Illiteracy, poverty and social misery continue to be their unjust reward. But considering the horrific unintended negative social effects of past "progressive" social policies such as building massive government-subsidized public housing projects to provide affordable housing for the poor, or dumbing down the public educational system within disadvantaged areas to elevate student self esteem, is this any suprise?

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