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The truth about affirmative action


THESE ARE the most frequently asked questions about affirmative action as it relates to college admission. The answers may be surprising.

What's affirmative action?

Supporters of affirmative action view it as a process intended to increase the representation of minorities in college and to end institutional discrimination.

The opposition to affirmative action defines it as a process of minority preference, which violates the ideals of meritocracy and constitutional notions of "equal protection." Opponents of affirmative action believe that blacks have already achieved inclusion and social standing in society. For them, discrimination is no longer a problem; the playing field is level. And since it is level, affirmative action disadvantages whites.

Proponents argue that discrimination is omnipresent in society. They point to the continuing gaps in unemployment, housing and schools. (Just one recent illustration: the median net worth of white families, as of 1995, is more than seven times greater than that of black families.) Consequently, they see institutional reforms as necessary to achieve parity.

What's wrong with selecting students according to their SAT scores?

A single day's performance on a time-pressured paper-and-pencil test measures only one narrow form of college aptitude. Such tests do not measure adaptability, problem-solving skills, interpersonal competency, cognitive complexity, creativity or achievement motivation.

Doesn't affirmative action mean that qualified applicants will lose out to unqualified applicants because of their gender, race or ethnicity?

There are no affirmative-action guidelines that call for the choice of an unqualified applicant - neither at the workplace nor in college admissions. Most decisions involve choosing between equally qualified candidates or candidates only slightly different in qualification.

Generally, these decisions are not terribly controversial. The main arguments typically arise when a qualified woman or minority candidate is chosen over a white candidate who has clearly better credentials. (Note that we are talking about qualified candidates of differing credentials.)

If we extrapolate from workplace studies and national surveys, this appears to happen about 5 percent of the time. It is this 5 percent that has become labeled as "reverse discrimination" and engendered the greatest hostility. This occurs in part, these studies show, because people perceive the incidence of reverse discrimination as four times more frequent than it may actually be.

Doesn't affirmative action undermine the self-esteem of its beneficiaries?

No, there is no hard social science evidence to support that claim. We do know, however, that the majority of those benefiting do support affirmative action, hardly a reflection of lowered self-esteem.

Wouldn't it be more fair if affirmative action was based on class rather than color?

If socioeconomic class became the criterion, then whites would continue to occupy most of the incoming slots. There are simply far more poor whites than poor blacks or Latinos. In a computer simulation based on the socioeconomic status of incoming students at the University of California, Berkeley, the number of black students admitted would drop by 60 percent.

Doesn't affirmative action result in higher dropout rates for black college students?

No. Studies at leading colleges and universities indicate that two-thirds of black entrants earn a diploma. At the most prestigious, highly selective institutions, the black-white differences in graduation rates average about 5 percent.

Does diversity really make a difference in a college education?

The sociological research comparing students who did or did not attend diverse colleges indicates that there are two sets of advantages. Students from diverse collegiate settings show a greater valuing of intellectual and academic skills, a greater ability to understand different perspectives and greater intellectual self-confidence. On a behavioral level, attending a diverse college results in more diverse friends, neighbors and work associates long after graduation.

Further, virtually all forms of intergroup experiences in diverse classrooms result in greater citizenship engagement and greater interpersonal engagement across group lines on graduation and even nine years after college entry. The evidence is compelling.

Howard J. Ehrlich is a sociologist who directs the Baltimore-based Prejudice Institute. He can be reached at

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