Is affirmative action in college admissions at an end? The expert weighs | CU Boulder today | Tech US News

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Protesters gather in Copley Square in Boston during a rally organized by Students for Fair Entry. (Credit: Image CC via Wikimedia Commons)

After two occasionally contentious hearings on Oct. 31, the U.S. Supreme Court may be poised to ban colleges and universities across the country from considering race in the admissions process — further curtailing affirmative action in higher education across the United States.

Michele Moses closely followed the arguments in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Associates of Harvard University and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. She is an author Living with Moral Disagreement: The Enduring Affirmative Action Controversy and Professor in the School of Education at CU Boulder. Moses has devoted her career to examining how arguments against affirmative action point to deeper questions of morality and justice in the United States and around the world.

Moses discusses his research on affirmative action and how upcoming Supreme Court decisions could change the face of colleges and universities across the country.

The US Supreme Court has heard many affirmative action cases over the years – Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978 and Gratz v. Bollinger in 2003, for example. How are these hearings different?

Michele Moses, Head Shot

Michele Moses

The first difference is the composition of the field. It’s the first time we’ve seen so many lawsuits so blatantly anti-racial and in almost any form. In this case, it is also different that we have plaintiffs of Asian origin. Previously, plaintiffs were white or Caucasian. These cases did not end the way the opponents of affirmative action expected, so I believe that this is a concerted, strategic approach by the opponents of affirmative action.

How did we get to this point?

Edward Blum has been known for years as almost the face of this movement in association with an organization called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA). In this case, he and his team actively recruited plaintiffs. They build websites. One of them was called Harvard University Not Fair. It featured a photo of an Asian-American student with the caption: “Did you get rejected from Harvard? Maybe it’s because you’re the wrong race.’

The strategy, in my opinion, is focused on fueling the politics of resentment between different racial and ethnic groups. The argument SFFA is trying to make is that affirmative action for underrepresented groups—whether they are black, Latino, or Native American students—results in Asian American students not being admitted.

Is this the correct interpretation?

Based on my own research and scholarly work, this seems to me to be a rather disingenuous way of achieving the results of their policies. It’s not true that if you’re a qualified Asian-American student and you don’t get into a university like Harvard, it’s because of affirmative action.

Harvard University accepts less than 5% of applicants, and the lion’s share of students who apply to Harvard are well-qualified. Many of these students have great SAT scores, great GPAs, etc. The SFFA argument tries to gloss over that there is much more to college and university admissions than your test scores and your GPA.

So schools select students based on much more than just these narrow qualifications. But why do schools look specifically at race?

If you’re an institution of higher education and you care about fulfilling an academic and social mission, I think it’s really important to have a student body that represents a wide range of diversity. People talk a lot about different views. Diversity certainly includes this. But it also includes racial and ethnic diversity. International students and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are also very important to creating vibrant and productive campuses.

Empirical research has confirmed this for years: when you have more people with different backgrounds, different histories, and different perspectives, they will bring different things to the table that will enhance truth-seeking and knowledge-making, as well as teaching and learning.

Several states have already banned race in college admissions, including California and Michigan. What have we learned from these countries?

What we’ve seen in states that have made decisions to eliminate race in college admissions is that it tends to increase inequality. In California, for example, the UCLA Civil Rights Project conducted an extensive study and found that admissions of underrepresented students had indeed declined since the state outlawed affirmative action in 1996.

Ignoring racial discrimination does not go away. It’s still a problem. Universities in states that have banned affirmative action are trying other ways to create the diverse student body they want to see on their campuses. But they did not find a solution.

You’ve said many times that arguments about affirmative action in higher education are about much more than the bottom line of how colleges select students. How come?

A lot of attention is paid to affirmative action in university admissions. Affirmative action is a very modest policy tool that colleges and universities have used to help shape these diverse, interesting, and dynamic classes of students.

A minority of colleges and universities in the United States even use affirmative action. I think too much focus on this reflects the current deep political polarization in the United States and, in some ways, the state of our democratic society. People disagree about what to do about lingering racism and its effects on important social goods, such as access to higher education.


CU Boulder Today regularly publishes Q&As with members of our faculty who address news topics through the lens of their scholarly knowledge and research/creative work. Answers here reflect the knowledge and interpretations of an expert and should not be considered the University’s position on the matter. All publication content is subject to editing for clarity, conciseness and university style guidelines.

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