February 14, 2003

Let’s Reframe The Affirmative Action Debate on College Admissions

By: Dori J. Maynard

President George W. Bush’s decision to wade into the legal wrangling over the University of Michigan’s use of race in its admissions policy gives us a rare opportunity to take a fresh look at an issue that has needlessly polarized the nation for decades.

Bush, a third-generation Yale graduate, boasts at best an undistinguished academic record. He once bragged that his presidency was proof anyone with a “C” average could ascend to the highest office in the land. He was most likely admitted to college not on his academic performance, but on the basis of his family background.

He is not alone. According to media reports, Harvard accepts 40 percent of applicants who are the children of alumni. Even the most cursory look at the University of Michigan’s selection guidelines makes clear that there are a number of factors that go into college admission – race being only one of them.

For example, children of alumni receive four points merely for their heritage. In-state students from underrepresented counties get 16 points. Applicants who are eligible for an athletic scholarship receive 20 points. The provost has the discretion to give a candidate 20 points. Socio-economically disadvantaged applicants of any race receive 20 points.

And yes, members of underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities receive 20 points.

However, according to the guidelines, the bulk of the decision is based on academics. In fact, only 27 percent of the maximum possible points an applicant can receive are based on non-academic criteria.

Scant attention has been paid by the media to other categories in the ranking system. The president has not criticized them. Instead, the focus has been solely on race.

As President Bush’s own experience illustrates, this conversation should not be about race. Rather, it should be about an academic institution’s right to decide the makeup of its student body. That it uses affirmative action in making that decision is a given. Look in the dictionary under affirmative, and you will find the word “positive.” A racially diverse student body is just one factor that most schools view as positive.

It would certainly seem positive, for example, for a college or university to admit the children of alumni — particularly if those alumni have the resources to donate money to the school. In fact, University of Michigan guidelines state: “To recognize the continuing services and support provided to the University, points will be awarded for certain alumni relationships...”

It also seems positive for a college or university to admit an athlete who could improve the team and raise the school’s profile. Again, the guidelines state: “In anticipation of their contributions to the University and in recognition of the tradition and national prominence of Michigan intercollegiate athletics, applicants being officially recruited and considered for athletic scholarships should have 20 points added to their score.”

It is clear that the white plaintiffs in the University of Michigan case were not necessarily rejected in favor of a student of color.

This should not come as a surprise to applicants. The University of Michigan has stood by its desire to have a diverse student population in all senses of the word.

“It is our sincere belief that this mixture contributes to the education of our students, as well as fulfills the University’s mission to prepare society’s future citizens and leaders,” the guidelines state.

Now that President Bush has joined the debate, it can only be hoped that he will bring the insight of his experience to the conversation. Then, as we look at college admission policies, we can weigh all the benefits of a diverse campus, including those of class, gender and geography.

For years, people of color have been told to stop playing the race card. Maybe it is time we all stopped playing the race card, and realize that there are a variety of factors that can lead to college admission.

As a nation, we must continue to have a dialogue on race. But we should not allow a university’s right to decide the makeup of its student body to be a proxy for that discussion. Nor should a college’s admissions plan be sacrificed in our struggle to reconcile the past, make sense of the present and move on to the future.

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