Eliminating Racism: Profiles in Controversy
Freshman Admissions at Berkeley: A Policy for the 1990s and Beyond Division, Academic Senate, University of California
Choosing a College: A Guide for Parents and Students
The Case Against the SAT
A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society
Visions of a Better Way: A Black Appraisal of Public Schooling
Minorities in Higher Education
Affirmative action may be out of favor at the Supreme Court, but it is becoming a stronger force on the nation’s campuses. Until a decade or so ago, questions of ethnicity and equity could be considered as involving mostly blacks and whites. Now Asians and Hispanics among others are making their claims as well, and the rules determining which groups will be given preferential treatment have been changing. To take only two examples:
In California, 33 percent of all Asian high school seniors have academic records that qualify them for the state’s university system. However, in 1988 they were allotted only 27 percent of the places at Berkeley and 18 percent at UCLA. Many believe there is an Asian quota. One young Asian woman argued that she does “not seek special consideration because of her race, but equitable treatment regardless of her race.”1
During the last five years, the University of Virginia has deliberately doubled its admissions of black students, while cutting back white enrollments. It now accepts over half the blacks who apply, but only a quarter of the whites, even though the average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of the black group are 240 points lower. An admissions dean has admitted: “We take in more in the groups with weaker credentials and make it harder for those with stronger credentials.”2
Today, every college and university says it is committed to “equal opportunity” in faculty hiring and student admissions. On its face, the principle would seem undeniable: all applicants should be given full and fair consideration, regardless of age or race or sex, or other characteristics or conditions. Under equal opportunity, standards would be set and all applicants would stand the same chance in the competition to meet them. If this seems a commonplace, it was often not the case in the past, and it is far from being so now. In the past, colleges turned down qualified candidates because they were Jewish. And today, as we have seen, some Asians protest that they satisfy admission standards, but are not getting their fair share of college places, while whites complain that blacks with relatively low scores on admissions tests are given places sought by higher scoring whites.
“Affirmative action” is different. No colleges today turn down black applicants who meet their academic criteria. Virtually all say they would like to attract even more black students. Indeed, small black enrollments have become a matter of embarrassment. In 1988, only 4 percent of the students at Smith College were black. Bowdoin has only 2 percent, and Reed College has even less. Few schools simply wait for black candidates to apply; almost all try to recruit them. The difficulty has been to find candidates the schools believe are qualified. Not only elite private schools, but many state universities want to maintain minimal standards for the people they admit. Hence their quandary when few black applicants meet those standards. To solve this problem, “affirmative action” now goes beyond recruiting drives and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.