Washington — In an assessment of the past political year at a Quality Education for Minorities luncheon, Dr. David Merkowitz of the American Council on Education said that threats to financial aid have been defeated and that affirmative action is still alive.
Merkowitz, ACE’s director of public affairs, was reporting on the work of the Alliance to Save Student Aid, an organization formed by more than 50 higher education associations representing students, faculty, college presidents and professional schools. The alliance came together in 1994 to counter arguments made by the newly elected Republican Congress that student aid should be cut and affirmative action killed.
“We organized students in each congressional district and had students turn out and try to get in to testify. We set up an 800 number for people to call their congress members to express their opinions on student aid,” Merkowitz said.
“We decided … to link the idea that access to college was linked with the ability to achieve the American dream and with America’s future. Having done that, the message of the alliance was: `Stop the raid on student aid,'” Merkowitz explained. “And what eventually happened is that the Republicans backed off on nearly all the bills to kill student aid programs.”
The grass-roots activity on campuses had the most effect, Merkowitz said. “Over time we began making inroads, particularly in the Senate with Republicans who never strongly supported cutting the programs to begin with.”
Another major concern of the alliance has been affirmative action, Merkowitz said. “In higher education, affirmative action encompasses employment, contracting and college admissions — with admissions being peculiar to higher education,” Merkowitz said. “So admissions is the piece of affirmative action we seek to address most directly.”
Merkowitz noted that affirmative action in college admissions is a strictly voluntary activity to diversify campuses, not a reaction to legal pressures.
“The grounding for that effort goes back to the Bakke decision that barred quotas but did allow race to be taken into account as a factor — not the single factor, but a factor — in college admissions,” Merkowitz said.
Merkowitz predicted that bills that have been introduced in the Congress that will eliminate all consideration of race in contracting and hiring would be stalled because of the preoccupation with the presidential primaries and the upcoming election.
One of the most important ways to defend affirmative action is to correct the idea that it involves preferences and quotas, said Merkowitz. In support of that effort, the ACE alliance has published a book, “Making the Case for Affirmative Action in Higher Education.”
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