College education, and who gets it

Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed reports on the study by Rachel B. Rubin on the admissions policy of some of the most selective U.S. colleges. Here’s my take on it.

A small caveat here: the study in the report is being presented at a meeting, so it is not fully peer-reviewed yet, which also means that I don’t have access to the actual data and analyses. That said, two parts of the report piqued my interest.

The first part is this:

Asked if she thinks her research suggests a legal vulnerability for some colleges on how they admit some minority students, Rubin said, “I think there is.” …

The system she found in use was that “if we see that we have only 3 percent black students” (using regular reviews), the officials say “let’s look at all the black students again and see what we can come up with, where can we find merit in these applications.”

The issue of diversity policies at colleges has been active since the 1960s when affirmative action plans and diversity recruitment plans came into existence. The key Supreme Court Rulings include the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) cases. There are plenty of commentary on the latter case out there such as this one from James E. Coleman Jr. at Duke Law School and this one from Edward Blum at the American Enterprise Institute. There is currently a case in the docket of the SCOTUS, Fischer v. the University of Texas, that will result in further clarification on the use of race in college admissions. Regardless of the outcome of the most recent case, the issue is unlikely to go away.

What spoke to me about this revelation is that if campuses are serious about achieving a diverse student body to enhance the educational experience of all students, they really need a very coherent and well-planned policy in place to withstand these legal scrutinies. More and more, college education has become a requisite for economic stability, whereas before it was a path to economic prosperity. The policies of admission into colleges, where race issues are concerned, can have a dramatic and profound effect on the future of how race intersects with socio-economic stratification. Injustice at an earlier time is typically amplified, e.g. under-performing public schools with high percentage of minority students do not yield college-ready high school graduates, thus impeding their progression on the socio-economic ladder. If we erect another barrier at the junction of admission to college, we will end up amplifying this inequity to the detriment of over all class mobility of our society.

However, in the Grutter v. Bollinger decision, the majority opinion that upheld the use of race as one of many factors for consideration in admission did not mention anything at all about addressing inequity to minority groups. Rather, it explicitly rejected it by affirming Justice Powell’s lone opinion in the Bakke case where he explained that considering race as a factor for admission is justified only for the purpose of attaining a diverse student body.

I personally find this analysis to be very disempowering for minority students, because it in essence objectifies them as people whose presence will benefit the campus at large. In other words, their presence is valued only as a service to the majority and dominant group;  it does not speak at all to the educational needs of a minority group whose under-representation at higher education is a result of past government-sanctioned injustices. But that issue is for another blog post.

The important bit here is that some of the policies at the most selective colleges may be running afoul of the “narrowly tailored” method of using race as one of many factors in considering applicants for admission. The clarification (or as is possible, further muddying) from the Fischer case is no doubt be very anticipated by the colleges and universities.

The second issue that grabbed my attention is this part:

While this practice may raise legal questions when used to consider minority students’ race and ethnicity, it is identical to the approach used for many other groups, Rubin said. Nonminority students may be the biggest beneficiary of this approach, she said, especially at colleges that don’t have enough aid money to admit all students without regard for financial need.

“I think that happens most often not for minority students but for students who can pay full tuition,” Rubin said. After a college has used its allocated aid budget, it compares the merits of students who can afford to pay all expenses, and they are not competing against the full pool. “That’s what’s happening,” she said.

The implication of this revelation is profound, in my view.

First, it exposes one of the blindspots in the contemporary conversation about affirmative action plans and diversity recruitment plans, which is that college admissions has always been a system that plays to the strengths of the dominant group. There have always been other factors, such as legacy admissions for children of alumni, etc., at work. The implementation of affirmative action is simply adding one factor to the over all mix in order to re-balance the scale. It is, of course, a potent addition, but it was never a groundbreaking, earth-shattering new step that leads astray the pure consideration based on merits alone. It was never about just merit.

Second, this reinforces the point I made earlier about colleges adding to the stratification of social classes along racial lines. Given the over-representation of African American families in the lowest quintile of median U.S. household income, it is not hard to imagine that once the student aids and loans run out, these families will basically be placed out of the remaining possible slots due to economic factors. This might be part of the reason for the phenomenon described in the Thomas Edsall article in NYT called “The Reproduction of Privilege.”

As a small cog in the machine that is higher education in the U.S., very little of what I think will matter. But as a faculty, especially those who see our job as a path to address social issues, I think this report by Rachel Rubin provides us with some useful nuggets of information.



  1. Laura

    (Preface: don’t have time right now to read the reports you linked at the top of your post, apologies.)

    Quick question to clarify something in my mind: is the indication, then, that affirmative action should also mean that minority students are considered first when it comes time to doling out money from the financial aid pool, instead of being offered places as an afterthought when the colleges need to bump up the percentage of minorities and maybe not being able to take them due to financial pressures?

    • Hi Laura,

      That is a good question, but one whose answer I do not know.

      he whole area of student aid is pretty labyrinthine, involving an over all package that is often a selection of multiple products rolled into it. Government financial aids are typically the biggest component in the package, and they are determined based on the FAFSA form. From the latest form that I just looked at, I did not see a question about race or ethnicity. So at least for that component of financial aid, race is not an issue. But there are other types of assistance programs that are specific to each campus, and they may or may not use race as a factor in the decision.

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