Alternatives to affirmative action

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It began with a noble purpose. Some solution needed to be found to address the effects of too many years of discrimination against minorities in the college admissions process, as well as for those seeking employment. Among the approaches developed was a race conscious college-admission policy that allowed for consideration of a student’s race as one of many factors in the admissions process. That approach, called “affirmative action,” was promoted as a means to address historic discrimination against Black applicants and to help create a diverse student body at participating universities. It was further argued that the inclusive educational environment fostered by affirmative action would enrich the educational experiences of all students at participating universities.

The affirmative action program has prompted decades of court battles over its legality. For the past 50 years, affirmative action has been part of American life and was repeatedly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. But with today’s 6-3 conservative majority on the court, that is likely to change.

In late October, the Supreme Court heard argument in a pair of lawsuits — one against Harvard University and the other against the University of North Carolina — on whether colleges and universities can consider race when they decide which applicants to admit.

Most court watchers agree that the court will almost certainly rule that affirmative action in college admissions is illegal, probably because the practice violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws and the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of racial discrimination by recipients of federal funding.

The reasoning is straightforward: Notwithstanding whatever positive motivations may be driving the process, discrimination on the basis of race should not be used as the means to correct past discrimination on the basis of race. In other words, two wrongs don’t make a right.

But if universities can’t use affirmative action, then how can they work to level the playing field for minority and disadvantaged applicants, and continue their commitment to creating a diverse campus community? At least two suggested approaches have been advanced — both of which will likely test the sincerity of a university’s embrace of diversity over fundamental financial concerns.

First, universities can increase their efforts to promote the admission of economically disadvantaged students, irrespective of their race or any other prohibited, discriminatory factor. Given the wealth gap that separates Black and white households, an increase in recruitment of economically disadvantaged students will almost certainly help boost campus diversity. Similarly, doing away with “legacy” preferences in university admissions for children of alumni and significant donors will also open more spaces for Black applicants and further add to each university’s diversity pool.

The problem is that most bottom-line-conscious universities are not willing to give up the financial bounty of legacy student tuitions and historical donor gifts. And given tight budgets and increasing costs, most universities are reluctant to increase allocations for financial assistance in order to achieve desired diversity. But if the court rules as expected, universities are going to have to find some race-neutral solution to their admissions challenges, and they may have to put some of their money where they say their values are.

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