THE UNIVERSITIES of Maryland and California have recently ended official affirmative action programs. Similar decisions are under consideration at other institutions, apparently under the false belief that such programs have given minorities and females an unfair advantage. Rather, the opposite is true. These programs, after modest accomplishments in the early 1970s, have simply maintained the status quo; they have not corrected the accumulated effects of past discrimination with respect to access to higher education.
The most controversial issue about affirmative action in higher education is admission based on race. As the absolute number of people of color on campuses has increased, concerns have been expressed that these students are supplanting more qualified whites. Here are some little-publicized facts that are important for discussion:
* From 1970 to 1993 (which are the most recent figures available), the absolute number of white college students increased from 7 million to 11 million. This happened even though the percentage of whites has declined in the general population and among the group of traditional 18-to-24-year-old college students.
* From 1970 to 1993, the absolute number of college students of color increased from 500,000 to 2 million. However, at the same time, the percentage of people of color in the population and among the group of traditional-aged college students also has increased.
The net result has been that two decades of affirmative action has not resulted in any relative gains for people of color. Only whites have made relative progress. Whites have increased their access to higher education from a participation rate of 32 percent to 42 percent, while people of color have remained at a constant level of about 30 percent over the same period -- from 1978 on, the date from which participation rate figures are available. The greater absolute numbers of minority students enrolled in colleges and universities is the simple result of increased numbers in the population.
These figures give a peculiar twist to the criticism that affirmative action has involved a lowering of "standards" for minorities and that people of color are "supplanting" more qualified whites.
Giving whites a break
Rather, since whites have made relative gains, the opposite must be true: Standards have been lowered or opportunities increased for whites, not for people of color. This conclusion is based on the fact that white participation has increased faster than the growth of the absolute numbers of whites in the general population, but minority participation has not.
Actually, the historical picture puts the degree of progress achieved to date in a more positive light than is justified. In fact, most of the absolute gains achieved by people of color were made in the early to middle 1970s, when over a seven-year period enrollment increased from 500,000 to 1.5 million. In the years since, there has been very little additional progress.
The past two decades have been a holding pattern with respect to the relative position of minorities; in terms of absolute numbers, for every additional student of color, there have been two additional white students.
In addition to race, greater gender equality has been the goal of affirmative action in higher education. Again, an examination of seldom-quoted facts is illuminating:
* In 1970, approximately 5.5 million males and 4 million women were enrolled in higher education. By 1990, the absolute number of women increased to 7 million.
* Women of all ages have not matched the gains made by women in general. In 1975, young women caught up with the enrollment rate of young men. Since then, there have been only small relative gains made by young women. Older women largely account for the growing numerical advantage women now hold in terms of enrollment in higher education.
* Between 1970 and 1990, the number of mature women enrolled in colleges and universities has increased ten-fold, while mature men have only increased two-fold. All of the gains by men were made before 1975, while the number of mature women has been steadily increasing each year.
Mature women, particularly those over 35, are now claiming their rightful place in the economy. They are doing this by returning to higher education to gain new or additional credentials. Mature men, for whatever reasons or circumstances, have not been willing or able to do likewise.
The result is that mature women are now increasingly in a position to compete with their male peers.
Out of proportion
One should naturally expect employment and economic gains by women as a result of their greater absolute numbers. However, in proportional terms, the economic gains made by women in such areas as academic jobs, still lags behind their availability in the workforce. Similar to race, the absolute numerical gains by women, which are becoming clearly visible in most settings, can be entirely accounted for through their greater relative level of participation in education.
The conclusion is clear: People of color and women are no better off in a proportional sense in the 1990s than they were in 1970.
Although over two decades of affirmative action have seen the absolute numbers of people of color and women increase, this does not mean that they have "supplanted," in some unfair way, whites and males. Quite to the contrary, there has not been any decline in the relative employment position of white males and in some cases modest relative gains.
It is perhaps not surprising that there is a white male backlash, but it is not justified. The fact that whites and men have held their own can only be accounted for through relatively greater opportunity for them. Affirmative action has at best muted the force and the effectiveness of past deliberate discrimination, and offered hope and encouragement to people of color and to women; it has not conferred them with an undeserved advantage, as it is sometimes claimed.
The explanation is simple. There are more and more people of color and more and more women with higher educational credentials. These individuals are simply claiming their rightful, but still less than proportional, economic place. This is an accomplishment which surely would have been more difficult without the consciousness of affirmative action, given the economic context from the middle 1980s to the present.
As difficult as it may be for universities and governments to admit to consciously increasing educational opportunities for whites over people of color and for older women, that has been the systemic effect of admissions and educational policies. The legal doctrines of affirmative action have failed because they have not gone far enough -- not because they have gone too far.
If higher education is to move forward, it must be with a new agenda. The first requirement is to put firmly to rest the myth that affirmative action has been an exercise in accommodating deficiency. The second step is to redefine "equity" in positive terms as the statistical fact of ending the differences in proportions. To do so will require a recognition that the legal doctrines used under affirmative action to define "fairness" have contributed to the outcome of discrimination.
The case for quotas
A simple quota system would have worked far better than all of the elaborate procedures devised to provide the pretext of a measure of merit, most particularly the reliance on written tests. Yet a numerical quota system is opposed as if it were fundamentally wrong in contrast to a testing system, which we know from experience will continue to ensure inequality of opportunity as the end result. It is a circular process by which the educational opportunities that predict the results on standardized tests are made dependent on those very test scores.
The present education system, largely designed by white men, serves them best in such simple ways as providing the content and style which they most value and with which they are most familiar. It is merit conferred by definition. Those individuals who are most different (i.e., are neither white nor male) will be disproportionately screened out of the system over 12 qualifying years of public school, and then by the college experience itself. It is those differences which preclude them from obtaining the credentials to have an opportunity to change the values and practices of the system which excludes them.
The fastest way to eliminate difference in education is to provide equality in access to education. This is the "real" outcome; it is the incentive most able to produce actual results.
The myth of merit
Providing both equal access and accommodating difference is neither unfair nor impossible. It is not, however, what universities and colleges have set their agendas to accomplish, nor is it what current faculty either wants or is willing to do. The re-allocation of time and money from the pretext of merit to the simple accommodation of difference, rather than current practices designed for the remediation of deficiency, is one starting place. Greater diversity of faculty and the elevation of black and women's studies from second-class status is another.
While these specific suggestions are clearly arguable, the same cannot be said for the need to address the shortcomings of affirmative action as not having gone far enough, and the unfounded attack on it as having conferred unfair advantage to minorities and women.
The popular subjective reaction that "sufficient" progress has been made seems to have diminished the sense of urgency, indeed, even providing the justification for returning to what some are now calling "a level playing field." This is wrong.
The playing field is not yet level and the uphill struggle for minorities and women will become even more difficult in the future. The impression that progress has gone too far is unfounded. It will take a new agenda of genuinely accommodating difference and of proportional statistical equality to move behind the current state of active retreat from what is right and necessary.
K. Edward Renner is a research professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is the author of a new book titled "The New Agenda for Higher Education."