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Racial and Gender Myths Surrounding College Admissions

A few weeks ago, I was listening to the radio in my car as I was on my way to one of the local coffeehouses in the college town in which I reside. My radio just happened to be tuned into a talk show discussion concerning a group of high school students (all White and one Asian, according to the hosts) who were suing various universities across the nation for refusing them admission after not gaining admission to their preferred institution. Claiming racial discrimination by the institutions that denied them admission, the students were seeking the support of conservative groups to assist them in their efforts, according to the discussion.

 As you probably can imagine, opinions expressed during the talk show ranged from across the political spectrum. Liberal callers were generally angered by the students’ reaction and they denounced the students for their disregard for cultural diversity. Conservatives listeners primarily lauded the student actions, saying that it was time that more people took a staunch stance against racial discrimination.  

 While I was deeply engaged with both, the story and the callers’ responses, one thing particularly annoyed me. It was that many callers, who harbored a conservative mindset, were under the impression that racial discrimination was the primary reason these students were denied admission to the schools of their choice. Unfortunately, I did not have my cell phone with me so I was unable to call and voice my opinion on the issue. Nonetheless, I was concerned and, quite frankly, disturbed by the frequently callous and uniformed dialogue I was hearing from many callers.

 The remarks were typical of the comments I have heard countless times over the decades. “All minorities, especially Blacks and Latinos will get preferential treatment.” “Women will get special treatment too.” “It is really not fair that minorities get a huge advantage.” “Minorities with much lower test scores and mediocre grades will get admitted before well-qualified White students do.”

 If you are a person of color older than 35, I am sure these quotes sound familiar to you. In fact, I have heard such rhetoric so many times that I cannot even begin to count. As I mentioned, due to the lack of a phone or access to one, I was unable to “mix it up” with the callers, however, had I had the opportunity to do so I would have informed them how misguided they were in their blatantly false assumptions.

 For example, I would have informed them that I worked in an admissions office at the University of Maine as a graduate student in the mid-1990s and directly witnessed how the admission process works. I would have made it clear to these irate men and women that there are a number of factors that determine who will be granted or denied admission to a certain institution. The situation is not as “Black and White” (pun intended) as they had been led to believe.

 While I would not be so sublime or intellectually dishonest to make the case the race had no influence at all, no matter how minimal, I would have made it clear that religion, grade-point average, economic situation, athletic, musical or artistic talent, geography, legacy status and test scores are among the variables that come into play.

 Admission officers ask many questions as they consider the diversity of applicants to their respective institutions. Are you a Mormon who has applied to schools other than Brigham Young University?  Do your parents or grandparents donate millions to a certain institution?  Are you a student from an economically disadvantaged background who is also a first-generation college student? Are you a gifted track star, swimmer, gymnast, football or basketball player?  Does your family have a long tradition of attending a certain institution? Do you have writing skills that have stirred people to believe that you are the next William Faulkner or Toni Morrison? Did you grow up on a pig farm in Nebraska? Do you live in rural Idaho? 

 I would have pointed out to the callers the broad extent to which diversity is defined in college admissions. The fact is that for the majority of colleges and universities race is only one of a number of factors in the admissions process. 

 After 20 minutes of driving, I finally arrived at my destination. I stayed in my car and continued listening for half an hour to the discussion, which had gotten me thinking about college admissions. I would like to think that I would have been successful convincing a number of callers to at least begin re-evaluating their notions about the college admissions process. Whether I would have been permanently successful in my goal, I will never know. However, I would have loved to have had the opportunity to have been able to speak truth to power about a topic where far too many falsehoods reign.      

 Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)

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