Affirmative Action Laws Aren’t The Problem

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On Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014, the Supreme Court upheld the right for Michigan to abstain from taking racial preference into consideration when admitting students to public universities. Every year, around the time when students find out whether they did or didn’t get into the colleges they applied to, this comes up. Primarily, it is black students who believe that they deserve lower standards to get into schools because their race puts them at a disadvantage and that it is the school’s duty as a public institution to promote diversity on campus. Opponents of affirmative action believe that admission should be a blind process and any privileges that would potentially account for a more likely admission should be ignored by the institution. I have lived in Michigan for most of my life and I think that it is important to also note that the only time affirmative action debates arise is when students don’t get into the University of Michigan, the most prestigious university in the state and home to some of the best programs in the country. There is something wrong with the conversation we are having.

When we talk about affirmative action, in essence, we are talking about taking white students out of a college and replacing them with black students. People will tell you that’s not what the laws are about, but, when it comes down to it, that’s the impact these laws have. I don’t really care. To me, I don’t think it is going to make a difference whether a Michigan educated black person or a Michigan educated white person or a Michigan educated Latino or a Michigan educated Native American is performing any number of the countless mundane tasks that 99% of the workforce is expected to perform on a daily basis. Furthermore, I don’t think that anyone who is destined for greatness (or even an upper-middle class lifestyle), is going to crash and burn just because they had to go down the street to Eastern Michigan when U of M shut their doors because of a low ACT score. Full disclosure: I graduated from Eastern Michigan in late 2012. I’ve published a book that was nominated as a Michigan Notable Book in 2013 and has been profiled on NPR twice, founded a profitable startup that has gained venture capital investment, and been able to make a living on my own terms since then; I can only imagine how successful I’d be if a more reputable university had let me pay them tens of thousands of dollars for a piece of paper that equivocates to some sort of arbitrary accreditation in an abstract and undefinable field.

I think that it’s probably in everyone’s best interest to create a learning environment that has people from all walks of life. I understand that probably means taking poorer students with a lower GPA over richer students with a higher GPA. The issue isn’t that we’re doing that– it’s that we think it’s wrong. We have become so married to the concept that a student’s GPA and ACT/SAT score is parallel to their potential that we immediately assume that passing up one student over another when their numbers dictate something else is an atrocity. That is absurd. Based on the varying styles of teaching from teachers around the world, the varying content of curriculum, illnesses, freak weather, and any other number of potential reasons, even if you’re taking two rich white kids from suburbs across the country with the same exact GPA and test scores, to call them equally intelligent would be a crap shot.

Using these two factors as the main criteria for admissions is, at best, thoughtless, and at worst, maniacal, so why do colleges and universities do it? They do it because it’s easy. It makes sense. For the 2013 freshman class, U of M received more than 46,730 applications for entry. How the hell are they supposed to seriously consider each and every one of those students for admission? There are 180 days between September 1st and Feb 1st, the first and last day you can submit an application to the University of Michigan. If, and I know this isn’t true, there was an equal amount of applications turned in every day, that would be about 260 applications every day, 28 an hour, or 4 per hour per admissions faculty member (according to a faculty directory on the umich.edu website). This isn’t including admissions to any specific school within the university, just the most basic undergraduate admission.

If you apply to the University of Michigan, assuming every admissions counselor is looking at applications, you’re going to get 15 minutes. Maybe 20 if the person before you was real bad. Let’s say 4 minutes for every 800 word essay you write and 3 to see your credentials. If you have a letter of recommendation it cuts down to 3 minutes per essay to make time for them to read that. The issue here isn’t that admission policies are somehow discriminatory, it’s that, in order to bring in as many students as possible, the school needs to debase every human being down to a few cells on a spreadsheet so they can deal with an as many applications as there are people combined in Tuvalu and Lichtenstein.

Schools do this because they have no reason not to. About 20% of U of M’s funds come from tuition but, more importantly, another 17% comes in the form of expendable restricted funds i.e. gifts and grants: both of which are highly reliant upon having a large alumni base, not to mention that the University of Michigan Athletic Department brought in 122 million dollars in revenue in 2011. The more students that apply, the more students you bring in; the more students you bring in, the more money you make. It is extremely simple and not reliant upon if the student has any exceptional qualities at all– just that they are smart enough to get a job afterwards and start dumping money back into the machine.

So now we’re faced with this crisis: because students are boiled down to the simplest common denominator and because it doesn’t make a difference for the school, there are gross inequalities. The way to fix this is not to create quotas or allow preference– that is just going to push the problem around to whatever socio-economic group has the lowest scores in conjunction with the new weighted methodology. The way to fix this is to stop treating students like they are means to an end. College has become this sort of pseudo-mandatory 4 year sentence for most high school graduates. When I was in High School, my guidance counselor laughing at me when I said I wasn’t sure I needed to go to college, as if not paying the equivalent of a new home to learn 68 credit hours of worthless pre-requisites would forsaken me.

If the reasoning behind affirmative action is that it is allowing a student to bloom and reach levels he or she otherwise would not have been able to, then the admissions process should be rigorous enough to prove that beyond “if he or she were white, they’d have had a higher ACT score”. Although I’m not black and have been told I can’t comment on if that’s offensive, I’m pretty sure it is. If a student is so gifted that his or her numbers aren’t important, then the numbers shouldn’t matter at all. It should be so obvious from taking the time to get to know this student that the reason he or she gets in isn’t because of affirmative action, it’s because they’ve got something pretty goddam impressive about them that warrants it. Unfortunately, that would take a lot longer than 15 minutes. Let’s say each student gets an hour to prove their case which, in my opinion, is still very short- then you’ve forced students to submit their application about 2 years before they even graduate high school. The only options are to employ dozens of qualified admissions faculty, purposefully look at less applications, or to make the applications process so arduous that it weeds out those who don’t have the desire. Even randomly throwing out 75% of the applications that the university gets would be a better way if it meant that every student who did have the chance to apply was given a fair shot. Fairness meaning they deserved it, not fairness meaning they passed some Rube Goldberg inspired point system where various “objective” attributes were given a comparable value.

I do not believe that my suggestions will be taken seriously, besides the fact that I have no credentials as a higher education consultant, it is completely contrary to the Sovietesque-model that showed more students = more money, but I do believe that it will begin a different conversation– one where we consider why a school must be so obtuse as to use racial preference in lieu of substantial research, one about how we can change the system to where the color of one’s skin does not matter. I wish I could force this sort of change, but unfortunately, I can’t. I must not have learned enough in college. If only I had gone to Michigan! TC Mark

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