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College Admissions Debate
Friday, January 17, 2003
Affirmative action has been in the news quite a bit recently, as the Bush administration had decided to weigh in on the University of Michigan admissions debate. One thing that strikes me is that the two sides of the debate seem to be talking past each other. The anti-affirmative action side says that affirmative action discriminates, while the pro-affirmative action camp says that it correct prior discrimination.
Both sides are correct. Affirmative action is a form of systematic discrimination to correct for prior discrimination. In our society, we have decided that discrimination against people due to their skin color is wrong. So, I generally think that it's not appropriate to take race into account in the admissions process.
I think that college admissions should be treated like the submission of academic papers, that is, blinded until after the decision has been made. This would remove many of the subtle forms of racial discrimination, like those based on names and zip codes. It may still be possible to discriminate based on things like the location of the high school, but perhaps more sophisticated blinding could eliminate that.
Eliminating the "race" checkboxes on the admissions form would be a good start, however.
I'm not sure if artificially increasing "diversity" should be a goal of the admissions process. I generally think that if society is to become colorblind, then "diversity" shouldn't be as big an issue as equality of opportunity, which the above provides.
Still, I can see how people could say that a student from a disadvantaged background who meets with moderate success may have more potential than someone from an affluent background who achieves a slightly higher degree of success. I could see taking some factors, like family income, stability, and school quality into account to compensate for this. (Indeed, the Texas plan of admitting the top 10% of every high school class does this, if one assumes that high schools generally contain people from the same background.)
But affirmative action discriminates solely on race, regardless of the beneficiary's social class. Fundamentally, I don't believe that if two people come from households with the same income, attend the same school, achieve identical grades and SAT scores, that one of them should be preferred due to his skin color.
(I also don't think that legacy should be a factor in admissions decisions, but I don't feel as strongly about preferences for things like that as I do about bias based on a person's skin color.)
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