Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Missing the Key Issue on Affirmative Action

I wrote last week about the Department of Justice memo regarding a new effort to "crack down" on "reverse discrimination" against whites (and Asians) in college admissions. As I explained in that piece, this effort is entirely about symbolic politics, with little to no practical impact on either college admissions or on most people's lives. I urged my colleagues in higher education, most of whom are dedicated to the ideal of diversity, not to panic, because most of our universities aren't going to be affected no matter what DOJ does.

Since most people don't read my blog, however, the ongoing conversation has continued as one might expect. People of color and their allies are understandably concerned about any effort to "target" affirmative action, which they see as a step towards turning back the clock towards a more openly racist past. Given all of the other openly racist things that have happened in the last six months, this is a reasonable concern even if this particular effort is of no consequence.

I have a number of friends in this group, and it is to those friends that this post is addressed. My argument is simple: we're missing the boat. This DOJ initiative on "reverse discrimination" is distracting us from something much more important.

Affirmative action in higher education is a big deal for those who want to advance the cause of underrepresented minorities, because higher education has tremendous potential as a social equalizer. For folks who have been permanently stuck in the economic and social underclass, getting a college degree can be a ticket to a better job, a better neighborhood, a better life. It can break the cycle of poverty and put families on a completely different trajectory for generations to come.

I'm a big believer in the transformative power of higher education, which is why I've devoted my career to it. I've watched single mothers with little support system go on to become Vice Presidents at Fortune 500 companies. I've seen how exposure to educated African Americans and Latinos changes white attitudes about who belongs and who doesn't. Access to higher education is one of the most important tools we have to help people help themselves, and to lift our entire society in the process.

But here's the reality: the kind of "who gets in and who doesn't" arguments about affirmative action and college that the Right wants to fight about don't have an impact on the broader societal problems we want to solve. If you want to lift families of color out of the cycle of poverty, having a different set of rules about who gets into Harvard or Michigan isn't the way to do it.

What's the real barrier? Money.

The vast majority of college students in the United States attend public regional universities. These aren't the schools that the New York Times writes about, but they are where people actually go. In particular, they are the primary recipients of first-generation students who are the key to altering family trajectories.

These universities don't have an affirmative action issue. Most of them accept 90%-95% of their applicants, and those they don't accept aren't decided by race but by basic capability factors (generally, high school GPA and ACT or SAT score). The Wright States and Millersvilles and SW Missouri States and Wisconsin-Green Bays of the world will take any and all students they can get who qualify. They are truly race-blind in admissions.

(As an aside, this is also true of a lot of private schools, who struggle to get the number of students they need to keep themselves going. Even the University of Dayton, a very good Catholic research institution, admitted as much recently - if they get two applicants, one white, one black, both equally qualified, they'll take them both.)

What keeps minority students from attending regional public universities isn't that they can't get in. It's that they can't afford it. And while there are lots of arguments about what is driving the cost of higher education, for regional publics the primary barrier to affordability has been the long, slow, inexorable march by most state legislatures to defund their higher education systems.

Case in point: 25 or so years ago, Wright State (a very typical regional public institution) got $2 of subsidy from the state for every $1 they collected in tuition from their students. Students had "skin in the game", but the amount they had to pony up was significantly decreased by state investment. Today, that ratio has flipped: WSU now gets less than 50 cents from the state for every dollar they get in tuition.

If you believe in higher education as a pathway to success for families of color, this is the battle you need to be fighting. Forget about admissions rules and arguments about whether race can or can't be included in deciding who gets in to college. If you want to really move the needle on societal equality, and lift millions of disadvantaged people out of the poverty trap, get more public money put into higher education.

I don't for a minute believe that this is an easy task. But as folks are marshaling political resources for a mostly symbolic battle of little practical significance, I ask them to consider focusing those resources instead on the battle that has the greatest impact on people's lives. Don't fall for the bait of arguing about Harvard's admissions practices. Harvard isn't going to solve our problems. But more money in public higher education just might.

1 comment:

  1. Yet another great post. This belongs in a NYT or WP Op-Ed.