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January 10, 2007
College Degrees, Social Status, and Affirmative Action
In his most recent column, Thomas Sowell takes apart a New York Times article from January 7 decrying the large percentage of Asian students at the University of California, Berkeley, the flagship campus of the UC system and one of the most prestigious universities in the country. According to the article, Berkeley is now 41 percent Asian. This "overrepresentation" of Asian students is attributed to a merit-based admissions policy that, in the words of the article, "has come at the expense of historically underrepresented blacks and Hispanics."
Sowell does a very nice job (as always) of rebutting what he calls the "new Yellow Peril." In particular, he points out that, even with the end of race-based admissions policies, there are now more black students in the UC system, not fewer. However, instead of there being as many black students attending Berkeley -- where, under affirmative action, they were more likely to be academically outmatched and less likely to graduate -
Hence, Sowell concludes: "Black students have not been denied a college education."
But is this really the end of the story? Is it really this easy to sweep aside concerns that black and Hispanic students are not getting as much of an opportunity (whether they "deserve" one or not) of graduating with a Berkeley degree? Is the greater likelihood of graduating with a degree from, say, UC Santa Barbara really a better option for prospective black college students than the lesser likelihood of graduating with a degree from Berkeley? Sowell does not provide the relevant statistics, so I don't know what the answer to this question (if there is one) might be.
But I think it is apparent that the answer will be quite different depending on where along the "academically qualified" spectrum one falls. Certainly, for black and Hispanic students who are sufficiently qualified to be able to complete some type of degree from Berkeley, but not sufficiently qualified to gain admission without affirmative action, they are losing the enormous "added value" of a Berkeley degree. After all, as Steve Sailer has bluntly stated: "What college you go to permanently signifies your position in the IQ strata." Put more gently, the same person who obtains a degree from Berkeley will be seen by others (including potential employers) as smarter and more capable than if he obtains the same degree from Santa Barbara. We all know this to be true.
Consequently, it seems to me that those black and Hispanic students who would not have failed out at Berkeley, but who need affirmative action to gain admission to the university, will be unlikely to be persuaded by Sowell's analysis, even if they end up doing better (in terms of grades) at a lower-ranked institution.
What's my point? Simply that, in standing up for merit-based admissions policies, we need to appreciate that "qualified" minority students are going to lose out on opportunities that could have made a real difference in their lives, and neither they nor their political advocates are going to be happy about this. While I strongly support initiatives to end race-based affirmative action (like the California and Michigan civil rights initiatives sponsored by Ward Connerly), we also must work to create stronger bonds of community and patriotism between the white and black members of our society, or we will never get beyond the acrimony of this issue.
Thomas Lifson adds:
College admissions are largely a zero-sum matter. Those who are denied admission to a prestige campus are not going to be happy, period. Stronger bonds of community and patriotism are well and good, but the argument of affirmative action advocates is that unless Berkeley "looks like California" it will not receive the support of constituency groups which vote but which are "underrepresented" at the elite campuses of UC.
Contrary to the expressed will of California's voters, who approved Proposition 209, UC Berkeley and the rest of the system continue to find ways to maximize numbers of minority groups they favor. Berkeley now requires students to write a narrative of hardships they have overcome, which can easily be used to favor those who indicate racism or family pathology in their life, and which can be weighted subjectively by admissions officers resentful of the voters' misguided (in their view) message. But even these procedures have not provided anything like proportionality.
Lamentably, the only way to achieve even the roughest proportionality would be to admit large numbers of very marginal blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, and to discriminate harshly against Asian-Americans and Jews, and perhaps, to a lesser degree, whites in general. Until all demographic groups place equal emphasis on acadmeic achievement, and until bad public schools return to teaching academics with rigor, this situation is unlikely to change.
Few note that currently there is a smaller percentage of whites admitted to Berkeley than their percentage of California's population, so whites are also an underrepresented minority on campus. Needless to say, any white who advocated affirmative action preferences for whites would be labeled a racist and worse. And such measures would penalize high-performing Asian Americans, whose reward for superior effort would be a figurative kick in the teeth.
We must decide as a society if we want to allocate educational opportunity by quota. Every state which has voted on the matter of government preferences has said "no."
Since it is not possible to define with precision which preferred minorities could graduate but don't meet current admissions criteria, any lowering of standards will result in a higher number of non-graduating preferred minorities. I think these people are worse off than they would be graduating from a less competitive school.
I also believe that undergraduate alma mater is but one signifier of IQ. Graduate school and career achievement also count for a lot. There are plenty of smart people at all levels of undergraduate institutions, including second and third tier public universities, and even among those who don't attend or graduate from college at all. I know this from personal experience.