Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Affirmative Antics

October 6th, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

I have watched the last decade’s public debate over affirmative action with both interest and disgust. I have observed the hysterics over the admission of “less qualified Blacks” through “racial preferences” and “quotas” with what is best described as an attitude of interest and cynical amusement. Majority fears of the Black-skinned “Other” encroaching upon the places that white America holds dear (the plantation household of yore, the union shop, the public high school, and — most recently — the college campus) is neither new nor surprising, nor is the denial of racism or the refusal to implement strategies for addressing not for past racism, but racism now, in the present.

Appalling, though not surprising, has been the lack of an uproar and, in many cases, the outright defense of affirmative action for other groups within the college applicant pool. I am speaking particularly of those widely known but only grudingly acknowledged systems in place at U.S. colleges and universities to accord preferential status to wealthy students, athletes, and the children of alumni.

Many college administrators, alumni, and athletic directors have argued that these students are good for the colleges that they are admitted to and — ironically enough — that they add an important element of diversity to the student body.  

I believe that both institutions and the students who attend them do indeed have much to gain from enrolling students who represent a wide range of experiences and incomes, talents and passions. You may be surprising to learn that I even believe that colleges can make a compelling argument in favor of cultivating multi-generational relationships and family loyalties through legacy admissions.  

In short, I believe that all of the elements of a student’s background and identity should be taken into account when weighing an application for college admission, including family income, parents’ education, legacy status, region, nationality, ethnicity, and race. These factors should not overshadow more academic criteria (grades, high school curriculum, teacher recommendations, standardized test scores), but they do matter, as much as any other factors that shape a students’ pursuit of educational success.

Whether motivated by a single-minded fear of the browning of American, or simply by a misguided believe in the possibility (in this ever-so-subjective world) of a purely merit-based admission process, the nation’s most vocal opponents of race-based anti-affirmative action remain largely silent with regard to the preferences given to athletes, wealthy students, and legacy applicants receive.

And yet a recent study conducted by two Princeton University sociologists and described in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education suggests that while the financial boons and loyalties that at least one of these non-race-based preference groups brings to college campuses may serve an institution’s economic interests, the admissions preferences grant to legacy applicants may conflict witha college’s academic profile and mission.

On most selective campuses, legacy admits (few of whom a people of color) significantly outnumber African American admitted students, despite the much greater interest on the part of affirmative action opponents in ending race-based consideration than on addressing legacy or income-based preferences. For those who are uncomfortable with the hypocrisy of this stance, here is some information that might bolster your position.

JBHE reports: 

Now two sociologists at Princeton University have found that students who received admissions preferences because of their ancestors’ relationship with the institution are more likely to run into academic trouble than African Americans who were admitted under affirmative action admissions programs. They say that legacy admits whose SAT scores and high school grade point averages are far below the mean for all entering students are more likely to get poor grades in college than black students admitted under race-sensitive admissions. The study also found that at the colleges and universities where legacy admits seem to have the most advantage, the dropout rates for legacies are the highest:

In contrast, blacks who received admissions preferences did not have similar levels of poor grades and were just as likely as other blacks to stay in college and earn a degree.

The study, which is published in the journal Social Problems, did find that at the selective colleges they surveyed, 77 percent of black students were the beneficiaries of affirmative action whereas 48 percent of all legacies benefited from admissions preferences.

–from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in Academia, Affirmative Action, African American Students, African Americans, Black Students, Higher Education

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