The Supreme Court's decision this week in the case Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action was disappointing but not surprising and might have been far worse. What the court did was uphold a 2006 ballot initiative that banned race-based admission policies at Michigan's state schools. It has no impact on states like Maryland where diversity on campus can continue to be promoted.
That's crucial. The same court had its chance to ban affirmative action last year in a University of Texas case and chose not to do so. So it remains constitutional for the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities to consider race — along with all the other factors that go into the admissions process, from whether a parent attended the school to the soft-discrimination posed by SAT scores enhanced by pricey prep classes.
We generally agree with dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor that the Michigan ballot initiative was itself an exercise in racial discrimination by setting an additional political hurdle for already-disadvantaged minorities to overcome. Indeed, it's already had the effect of reducing minority enrollment in state schools by about one-third. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.'s view that racial discrimination can be ended only by banning all racial discrimination is naive and ignores decades, if not centuries, of American experience, including the last six years in Michigan.
Even so, the loss would be far more stinging if there were not some reasonable remedies available even to Michigan schools. One of the best is for institutions to promote so-called "first-generation" students — applicants who will be the first in their families to attend a four-year postsecondary educational institution. Studies have shown that a majority of such students are from a minority background, most often African-American or Latino.
This is not a small group within the applicant pool. Nearly one-third of entering freshman have been identified as first generation, although not every school solicits that information. And there are concerns that some applicants may be embarrassed by that status and don't generally mention it when they apply to school. They should wear it proudly.
Another would be to follow the example of Texas where an affirmative action program was struck down 18 years ago. The substitute was a program guaranteeing students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class admission to the state school of their choice. By so doing, minorities were not dragged down by standardized test scores, which often hurt their chances of admission at better schools.
Schools may also drop admissions standards that tend to benefit whites like legacy admission while putting a higher premium on an applicant's diversity of life experience. Doing more to reach out to minorities and the poor — hosting diversity conferences and sending more admissions officers to inner city schools — would likely help the applicant pool, too.
One of the most important steps to be taken in Maryland and elsewhere would be to invest more tax dollars in financial aid grants to deserving students — and perhaps put less of a premium on keeping down tuition costs for the affluent with tuition caps that extend to all in-state undergraduates regardless of income level. Nor would it hurt for Maryland to get rid of its legislative scholarships, which so often are awarded to the sons and daughters of incumbents' political allies. And, of course, it should go without saying that improving public K-12 education, particularly the performance of schools in Baltimore and other places serving large numbers of disadvantaged students, would help bring more qualified minority applicants to the pool.
Obviously, none of these measures is as perfect a remedy for boosting minority representation on campus as actually taking direct steps to boosting minority representation. It's unfortunate that some justices are perfectly comfortable with maintaining a status quo that has historically shut out certain groups from economic opportunity but apparently can't bear the thought of a non-minority ever having to accept a second-choice college placement.
Clearly, some more education is required — not on campus, but for the electorate, much of which seems tragically unaware of how the college admissions process has traditionally shut out minorities. Too often, opponents couch the college admission issue as the imposition of "quotas" or use some other dog-whistle language to suggest the undeserving are getting an unfair advantage. The reality is the deck is stacked against minorities and always has been. The remedy is not to ignore their plight or "wish it away" because we all suffer if the best possible educational opportunities aren't provided to all.
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