Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Why the Administration's "Advice" on Affirmative Action Doesn't Matter

There is lots of concern on the left about this recent headline story:
Trump administration reverses Obama-era guidance on use of race in college admissions
As someone who works in higher education administration, this is the least concerning thing the Administration has done in months. There are several reasons why this isn't worth our time and attention:

1) It's pointless as a symbolic gesture. I've heard it argued that one reason why folks on the left are upset about this is the symbolic message is sends, that the Administration is hostile to the rights and welfare of minorities. I would have thought that referring to neo-nazis and white supremicists as "fine people" was more that sufficient to make that point. As a symbolic message, this doesn't say anything Donald Trump hasn't been saying for decades.

2) It's non-binding advice. The "guidance" in question doesn't change the law, or the boundaries of the law. There may be a message in here about what this Justice Department is or isn't willing to argue in court cases that may come up, but again we already knew that (see #1 above). Otherwise, this just amounts to a set of suggestions that universities are free to do with as they please.

3) This only applies to institutions that are selective enough for these kinds of things to matter. If you only read the New York Times, you would get the impression that higher education in the United States consists of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and a few other schools here and there. But the reality is that genuinely selective schools are only a very, very small slice of the higher education landscape. Most schools, public and private alike, are desperate enough for students that they will happily accept as many qualified students as they can find, even as they also want to admit diverse groups of students. The number of schools that might conceivably turn away a white applicant in favor of a black or Latino one is extremely small.

4) Because of #3, we need to understand that this isn't about creating a more racially just society in any broad kind of way. This is a rich people's argument, because only the very well-off can afford to send their kids to the kinds of schools for whom these sorts of decisions are relevant. Yes, every year Harvard or Yale or Williams or Stanford will let in a handful of minority students on full ride scholarships. That number is a fraction of a drop in the bucket. For the vast majority (95%+) of minority families who pin their hopes on higher education to lift them out of poverty, their kids aren't going to go to those schools. They're going to go to regional public institutions for whom this argument is irrelevant.

If you care about a more racially and economically just society, and if you believe that higher education is a means to that end, don't spend your time agonizing about this "guidance". Focus that energy on getting your state legislatures to re-fund their public higher education systems, gutted and increasingly expensive after decades of budget cuts. Don't get distracted by red herrings. Focus on what matters.

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