PRISM Magazine Online - April 2000
Affirmative Action, Round II

Affirmative Action, Round IIAs affirmative action is increasingly challenged as a solution to the underrepresentation of some minority groups in higher education, some states are taking a new approach. Texas, Florida, and California have programs in various stages that guarantee high school students admission to a state university--regardless of what high school they attend or of their test scores--provided that they graduate within a given percentile of the top of their class. The jury is still out on what the actual results will be, and the issue is sure to remain a politically explosive one.

We asked Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity and George Campbell of the National Action Council on Minorities in Engineering--our two opponents in last year's affirmative action debate ("Mend It or End It?" March 1999, p. 14) --to share their thoughts on this new approach.

A One-Dimensional Approach
George Campbell, Jr.

Neither political assault nor the legal challenges of recent years have shattered higher education's commitment to equitable opportunities for minorities. Visionary leaders have not relinquished their belief in the fundamental value of diversity in creating the intellectual vitality and creative vigor essential to the university's mission. However, anti-affirmative action policies have forced them to seek new approaches to achieving diversity.

Given the still largely segregated American public schools, guaranteeing admission to the top graduates from all high schools does enhance access for minority students. However, this simplistic approach poses a far greater danger of disrupting coherent admission practices and corrupting academic outcomes than correctly administered affirmative action policies ever did. If the goal of selective institutions is to admit students with the highest academic potential or greatest "merit," the critical question is how to measure this subjective quality in a way that is neither deliberately nor inadvertently discriminatory. This is a complex chore that requires in-depth knowledge of students' backgrounds, including educational obstacles imposed by society--factors closely correlated with race.

Like standardized test scores, the one-dimensional class rank criterion constitutes another easy way around this difficult task, and is unlikely to yield desired outcomes. Ironically, superior students stifled by unstimulating environments often have weak official records. Moreover, ill-prepared students--whatever their intellectual capabilities--admitted to highly competitive institutions have little chance of succeeding.

The good news is that successful, proven strategies do exist. NACME's Engineering Vanguard Program selects high-potential students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds through a comprehensive, interactive assessment process. But selection of bright young people is by no means sufficient. Vanguard students must complete an intense academic preparation program prior to matriculation. The program has been producing highly successful engineering students at top engineering colleges for the past six years.  

    George Campbell Jr. is president and CEO of NACME, Inc.
    and president-elect of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

The X% Non-solution
Roger Clegg

As overt preferences based on race and ethnicity increasingly fall into legal and political disfavor, some people are suggesting that we stop using the SAT-- which African Americans and Hispanics have scored relatively poorly on--and instead guarantee that some percentage of each high-school graduating class be admitted to college.

This is a bad idea for three reasons. First of all, it's illegal. Choosing selection criteria because it will help a particular racial or ethnic group is discrimination. Suppose the shoe were on the other foot, and a college deliberately changed its application process to include new factors that it knew would cut back the number of blacks and Hispanics. That would clearly be illegal discrimination, and the "X percent solution"--designed to cap the number of Asians, Jews, and others who tend to do well on the SAT--is no different.

Second, it's bad educational policy. It assumes a degree of equality among high schools that is not the case. It also assumes that the SAT is not a useful tool in sorting applicants, which is likewise false. Schools should figure out what factors best predict student performance and then rely on them, letting the racial and ethnic chips fall where they may.

Third, dumbing down entrance requirements to "help" African Americans and Hispanics is insulting and it sweeps the real problems under the rug. The reality, reflected by both SATs and high-school grades, is that a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics are not among the best qualified to enter our top universities. The solution, in two words: Study harder.

In more than two words: Improve the failing public schools, which are disproportionately attended by blacks and Hispanics, through school choice, charter schools, and vouchers. Vanquish the notion that studying hard is "acting white." And ensure better support at home by addressing high illegitimacy rates, which stand at 69 percent for blacks, 41 percent for Hispanics, versus only 22 percent for whites.

    Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity,
    a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.