How a Race-Neutral Admissions Policy Will Promote Minorities' Success

As a college professor, one of my duties was to advise undergraduate students.  I recall one student in particular, an intelligent African-American who was nonetheless earning mediocre grades, semester after semester.  When I suggested that, as bright as she was, she could do better, she responded: "Why should I?  I'm going to get a good job when I graduate, no matter what."

Long before she arrived at college in the late 1970s, this student had figured out how to game the system.  She had been passed along through high school and college, and she expected a good job with regular promotions regardless of her performance.

As I thought about it, I realized that Susan was acting in a rational manner.  The system was bending over backwards to ensure that she succeeded, and she was doing just what was expected of her.  In her position, I might have done the same thing.

The problem wasn't Susan; it was an academic system that excused and encouraged failure.  No matter how poorly Susan performed, the system was determined to advance her.

This system is damaging to minority students like Susan and to society.  Susan would never gain the reward of taking on mental challenges and succeeding on her own merits, and society would be denied the full contributions of a talented woman. 

Susan went on to graduate, and she received an excellent job offer at a government research facility.  I do not know how well Susan performed in her position, but I do know that she was not as prepared as she might have been.

Whether this sad state of affairs should continue is the matter now before the Supreme Court as it revisits Fisher v. University of Texas.  In that 7-1decision, Justice Kennedy wrote that the Fifth Circuit appeals court in the Fisher case had failed to apply the burden of "strict scrutiny" as set forth in Grutter v. Bollinger before considering race as a factor in admissions.  The lower court's ruling in the Fisher case was vacated, and the case was remanded to the lower court, which then ruled once again in favor of the university.  At this point, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Ms. Fisher's appeal of the Fifth Circuit decision.

Now the appellant, Abigail Fisher, has brought the case to the Supreme Court once again on the grounds that the race-based policy that denied her admission in 2008 has not been remedied.  At this point, the Court has the opportunity to make things right by ruling, once and for all, that racial preferences have no part in college admissions (or in any other arena of life, for that matter).

The University of Texas at Austin, seconded by the Obama administration, would seem to be arguing implicitly that the goal of racial diversity overrides the constitutional right of equality under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Austin campus already grants automatic admission to the top 7% of students in Texas high school graduating classes as a means of supporting diversity.  While not explicitly race-based, this policy grants admission to many minority students who would not be admitted on their merits.  But the university argues that the top 7% rule doesn't go far enough.

In the words of the university's president, Gregory L. Fenves, "the risk of having fewer students from underrepresented groups … will perpetuate an environment in which no student derives the benefits of diversity."  The statement seems misguided in two respects.  First, it begins by categorizing students into "groups," which is to say by race, a practice that violates the spirit and letter of the Constitution.  The Fourteenth Amendment states that no state "shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The equal protection of the laws includes the right to be considered, without prejudice, for admission to state universities funded by the taxes of all citizens.  It is nonsensical to suppose that the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to support racial preferences in college admissions.  It is to Justice Clarence Thomas's great credit that, in his concurring opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas, he argued this very point.  The value of diversity is not by any means great enough to override the Constitution.

Supporters of racial preference do not often address the Fourteenth Amendment.  They speak in terms that suggest the overriding importance of diversity.  But is diversity, in and of itself, an ultimate and overriding value?  And does it matter by what means this diversity is achieved?

Clearly, it does.  Preferential admission on the basis of race violates the rights of non-minority students who have worked long and hard to gain admission to the nation's leading universities.  This in and of itself is reason enough to strike down Fisher and replace it with a race-blind admissions policy.

But preferential admission also damages the very students it is intended to help.  I have no doubt that administrators such as those at Austin are sincere in their goal of promoting diversity on campus.  But to grant preference to one candidate over another simply on the basis of one's skin color is degrading and demoralizing.  It promotes the kind of apathy that I saw in Susan 35 years ago.  The fact that she was passed along, and knew that she had been, cannot have been helpful in her later development.  And this is exactly why the policy is damaging to students at all universities that employ racial preference in admissions.

Knowing that she will gain admission regardless of her record, a minority student is not as likely to work to her maximum potential in high school.  By the time she arrives at the university, she has already adopted the mindset of entitlement based on race.  That mindset will undermine her studies in college and her job performance afterward.  Working hard to gain admission based on merit would prove far more beneficial.

There are those, including some arguing the Fisher case on the side of the University of Texas, who believe that minority students are incapable of competing on a level playing field with others.  It is astounding that this view, that minority students are less capable than others, is held by the very persons who insist that they are acting on the behalf of those same minorities.

The only sensible position, at Texas and all other universities, is to insist that minority candidates for admission are equally capable and that they should be evaluated by the same standards as all others.  If this results in a temporary drop in the numbers of minority students enrolling, this will be to the long-term benefit of other minority candidates who will then apply themselves to their fullest in high school, knowing that they will be required to meet a neutral standard.

Once Fisher has been reversed and replaced with a race-neutral admissions policy, students like Susan will be rewarded with the knowledge that they have earned admission to the colleges of their choice.  With that knowledge, minority students can take pride in their accomplishments in high school and college, and they can enter the workplace on a truly equal footing with others.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).