Why Isn’t Eligibility Part of the Affirmative Action Debate?
By Dr. Jamillah Moore
Since the mid to late 1990s, the attack on the use of race in college admissions was chiefly waged via ballot initiations, legislation and court decisions. The tactics were unquestionably successful and brought about the elimination of affirmative action in California, Texas,
Mississippi, Florida, Washington state and Georgia. The 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger cases, while sustaining affirmative action (and allowing some states to revisit recent decisions on the policy), have not eliminated the debate on the use of race in college admissions.
As the former consultant to the California State Senate Select Committee on College Admissions and Outreach, I found that the process of eligibility is the one element that remains absent from the affirmative action conversation.
When college officials admit students based on a set of criteria, and one of those is ethnicity, they are automatically criticized for unfair preference. Yet the first step in the admissions process is the step of eligibility. All students must be eligible to be considered for admission, meaning they must meet all of the quantitative university requirements before they can apply.
Eligibility is always left out of the equation in the affirmative action debate because critics assume that admissions decisions are made largely on the basis of race, which could mean that unqualified students of color are admitted over qualified Whites.
Eligibility and admission are two different things. A student may be eligible to apply, but that does not mean they will be automatically admitted. The difference between eligibility and admission is a set of criteria or “preferences” the university will employ in making their decisions on which students get in. The most commonly used are those of geographic location, family background and income level.
The controversy continues as few colleges have done anything about certain preferences that still persist, which exclude under-represented students of color, such as admission by exception (open enrollment), alumni legacies, affluent family admissions and the sacred cow of special athletic admission.
Many institutions give preferences to the children of alumni or students from wealthy families: These students are not always “eligible” for admission by the university’s own standards. The University of California system, for example, engages in admission by exception, where they will admit up to 4 percent of students who are not fully eligible, but can offer “special abilities” to the institution.
These preferences equate more privileges to the haves while continuing to exclude the have-nots. Yet, they are rarely part of the national debate.
Affirmative action was implemented to offer access and provide opportunities for under-represented students historically and systemically excluded when institutions used the preferences of “Whites-only.”
While some institutions claimed they made strides in increasing minority admissions without the use of race, the number of minorities was actually declining in highly selective campuses. The University of California system was a prime example. By the system’s admission, the 1996 ban on using race in admissions resulted in immediate declines in already small proportions of African-American, Latino and American Indian admits. While the numbers have rebounded at most UC campuses, under-represented minority enrollment at the system’s most selective campuses — Berkeley, San Diego and Los Angeles — still languish below their 1997 numbers.
The case was the same in Texas. According to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, outlawing affirmative action programs in higher education in Texas had a negative impact on Black, Latino and American Indian enrollment at the University of Texas-Austin. In addition, although minority admission rates have increased at some schools, they have declined overall at the premier Texas law and medical schools.
There are three realities that must be present in the debate on racial diversity in college admissions. 1) Racial diversity on a college campus is impossible without the use of race as criteria. 2) Not everyone who applies gets in, so colleges and universities will always have to use a set of preferences in choosing students to admit. Institutions need to acknowledge all of the preferences they use and articulate the benefits admitted students would bring to the institution. 3) Until individuals understand the difference between eligibility and admission there will always be an assumption that any student admitted over another student with higher scores was not qualified.
Until Americans have a working knowledge of how college admissions processes actually work there will always be only one side to the story, and diversity on public college campuses will be diminished.
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