College Admissions, Let’s Not Break The Law

David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for the New York Times, recently visited the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and took a careful look at the current admissions process of that campus in the wake of Proposition 209, the California ballot initiative that outlawed race and gender preferences in public education, as well as in public employment and contracting. In particular, Leonhardt examined the application and the fate of one Francis Harris, a black student from Sacramento, who became the case study for his article. Here is how Leonhardt describes Ms. Harris:

She has managed to do very well in very difficult circumstances, and she is African-American. Her high school, in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, was shut down as an irremediable failure the spring before her freshman year, then reopened months later as a charter school. Midway through high school, her father developed heart problems and became an irritable fixture around the home. She also discovered that he was not actually her biological father. That was a man named Leroy who, when her mother took Harris to see him, simply said his name was George and waited for her to leave. In Harris’s senior year, her mother lost her job at a nursing home and the family filed for bankruptcy… Harris, for instance, scored a 22 on the ACT test – slightly above the national average and well below the U.C.L.A. average.

The underlying question posed by Leonhardt with regard to Harris is the extent to which her “disadvantages” should factor into her application for admission to U.C.L.A. As did Leonhardt, most college admissions officers look primarily at one facet of Harris’s life: “…she is African-American.” They start from the premise stated by Peter Taylor, a good friend mentioned in Leonhardt’s column, that “race has an enormous effect on the lives of applicants.”

The fact of the matter, however, is that while Harris’s life circumstances have been “difficult,” difficult circumstances are not confined to black students. There is absolutely nothing in the description about Harris that is uniquely an obstacle confronted by blacks. Whites have also been known to file for bankruptcy and to have parental inadequacies. Asian and white kids also attend unstable schools. Yet, because Harris is black, every disadvantage in her life is interpreted as a problem engendered because of her “race.” And, those who support race preferences want to use the tool of “affirmative action” to compensate for those supposed “effects of being black.” They want to do that which the United States Supreme Court forbids them from doing: “curing societal ills.” In the absence of Prop. 209, they could hide behind the fig leaf of “diversity,” but Prop. 209 removed their ability to do that in California.

U.C.L.A administrators and individuals such as Taylor operate from the perspective that Prop. 209 has “created a patently impossible situation.” They want to admit more blacks but recognize that “at every rung of the socioeconomic ladder, the academic record of black students is worse than that of other groups.” In addition, the socioeconomic conditions of many Asians, for example, are worse than those of blacks. That is why Taylor says in Leonhardt’s column that “there is no proxy for race.” To their credit, they would prefer to solve the problem without “breaking the law,” although I am certain that breaking the law is not a fatal challenge for them. The temptation to skirt or subvert the law is certainly there. Chris Reed, an editorial writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, called Leonhardt’s piece “a 4,800-word article explaining and implicitly praising the possibly illegal ways that UC officials got around Proposition 209 and its ban on racial considerations in admission.”

The irony is that in a formally “colorblind” admissions structure – no race “boxes” on the application, no encouragement to applicants to convey their racial background in essays, no intent on the part of admissions officers to find proxies for race – U.C.L.A. could admit the Francis Harris’s of our society with few complaints from hardly anyone.

Most Americans do not expect academic institutions to make their admissions decisions based solely on grade point averages and standardized test scores. As a UC Regent, I was the one to include what ultimately become known as “comprehensive review” in my resolution (SP-1) to end preferential treatment. If U.C.L.A. would simply accept the will of the people that race should not be a factor, either explicitly or “under the table,” abandon their foolish attempts to “level the playing field” based on race, and establish their credibility with the public as a fair and race-neutral entity, then they could admit whomever they want and carry the presumption of innocence about race that needs to become the model of the future for pluralistic societies.

Anyone familiar with admissions and the U.C.L.A. experience for the 2007 academic year should certainly know that U.C.L.A. has somehow broken the law. When Tom Lifka, a U.C.L.A. assistant vice chancellor who oversees admissions, said “It’s the fallacy of 209 that you can immediately move to a system that doesn’t take account of race and that treats everybody fairly,” the implicit message was that U.C.L.A. is still using race, but perhaps not to the extent that was previously the case. To believe otherwise doesn’t pass the giggle test. The problem is that one year’s experience is not the smoking gun that will be necessary to prove discrimination. But, one or two more years of statistics that parallel this year’s and the legal inoculation that U.C.L.A. believes it has will become quite tenuous. As it is, it is my view that U.C.L.A. is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Considering all of this, Leonhardt asks the very important questions that begged to be asked: “So what if U.C.L.A. is somehow taking into account the disadvantages that black students face because of their race? Isn’t that legal? And isn’t it just?” First, there is no evidence that the disadvantages that black students face result uniquely from their race. If Francis Harris is the example of such disadvantages, then the proponents of race preferences have a very tough set of circumstances to overcome to make their case that blacks deserve a preferential treatment in college admissions. Second, it is not legal to use race as a way of assisting black students overcome the supposed disadvantages that they face because of their race. The Supreme Court and the people of California have already passed judgment on this question. Finally, it is not “just” for public institutions to practice discrimination based on the “race” or skin color of an individual. If that fact is not settled by now, then the past 40-plus years of American history have taught us nothing.

The most useful lesson to be learned from Leonhardt’s article is that it would be prudent for those on both sides of the race preferences in college admissions debate to work toward some acceptable compromise for the good of our nation. I have a proposal. To begin, there can be no middle ground about the use of race. This is not an area where one can fudge or cheat just a little bit. Either we permit the use of “race” in American life or we don’t. I say, “We don’t!” The proponents of race simply must relent on that point.

The opponents of race preferences tend to believe in academic meritocracy – and I am among them. Where we must compromise, however, is in how we view “merit.” We must also understand the national imperative of providing access to low income students and to those who are confronted with disadvantages that impede their ability to lead productive lives and to demonstrate their potential value to American society. It is not in our national interest to have hordes of people standing on the sidelines seething with anger because they cannot obtain a ticket to gain access to a better life in America. That ticket for most of us is higher education. Thus, those of us who believe in academic meritocracy must broaden how we view “merit.” That largely means empowering admissions officers to search for talent from among all students and not just the “A” average, high SAT students. In short, socioeconomic “affirmative action,” in a colorblind admissions process, can be that compromise.


11 thoughts on “College Admissions, Let’s Not Break The Law

  1. Robert, the truest statement in your post, is that “they have an ideology they cling to” and any rational person who has observed what goes on at UCLA, knows that they will be guardians of that ideology regardless of what the law says. They have rejected worthy students over an over because of that “ideology.” The people who administer things at UCLA are arrogant and devious people, not interested at all in the academic excellence they claim to care about.

  2. from the article – “When Tom Lifka, a U.C.L.A. assistant vice chancellor who oversees admissions, said ?It?s the fallacy of 209 that you can immediately move to a system that doesn?t take account of race and that treats everybody fairly,?
    It is beyond ironic that someone like the assistant vice chancellor at U.C.L.A. who oversees admissions considers fairness to be giving someone an advantage because of their dna (race) and consideres it unfair to treat people in a racially color blind manner. The only fallacy here is that these people at U.C.L.A. care anything at all about true fairness. They seem to be very determined to be anything but fair. They have an ideology that they cling to and it seems they will do anything to try and force equality by giving unfair advantage to minorities no matter how unfair their practices are to whites. Nobody, black, white, yellow or red deserves anything more than equal opportunity for when you give an advantage to one it means someone else is getting disadvantaged. If our colleges can’t even stand up for genuine fairness then we are in trouble.

  3. I am curious. As the parent of three college students, none of whom get much in the way of financial aid despite spiraling tuition and fees, it seems to me that there is more support for those who do nothing to improve themselves than there is for those kids who try to do everything to improve themselves. My kids all work nearly full time at the “jobs Americans won’t do”. They take these jobs because of the need to adapt to their class schedules. On top of that, our state has a new mandate that punishes student financially for taking longer than four years to graduate. Now let me know, with higher tuition, less financial support for the students who don’t have socially accepted traumas and more support for students who take the money but never complete the degree, where is the improvement to the system that will give us tomorrow’s leaders? Incidentally, all my kids have GPA’s of 3.3 or higher-but all the money goes to those politically desirable minorities or to athletes. What is a student or a parent of a conventionally good student supposed to do other than mortgage their retirement to an unending list of fees, books, tuition and housing?

  4. The Regents control the Presidential appointments. The Presidents control the Admissions Offices. May I suggest that at one university in CA you appoint one Prez who has the backing of the Regents to stop this fraud. Other campuses will then fall in line. It may be necessary to arrest some faculty and students who protest. It may be necessary to fire some faculty and staff members. So what? Appoint Ward Connerly Prez of UCLA and let’s see what happens. Alternatively, a mass class action suit against all the universities in the system might get someone’s attention as Connerly suggests.

  5. One way to stop this nonsense would be to force the admissions office to publicly justify every admit with “well below standard range” test scores. Public outcry at the facts would eventually bring these scofflaws into line.

  6. The questionable argument in this debate is the implicit assumption by both sides that whosoever they choose to admit to UCLA will ultimately perform equally well in society. Thus they view education as the acquisition of a ‘union card’ to professional standing.
    Try performing a ‘gedanken experiment.’ Throw out standardized testing and admit anybody above a ‘B-‘ average from any secondary school in California. Since the pool of applicants will be huge, use a random selection from the pool. This is a possible interpretation of the law. Especially, do this in the Engineering Schools. What do you suppose will be the outcome?
    I submit that you will sideline the best students, who are in a great minority, and force them out of state. In their place, you will find an engineering class who have a great deal of difficulty with the mathematical and conceptual requirements for a fundamental understanding of the engineering disciplines. It will soon become known that graduate applicants from UCLA to MS and PhD programs have to be scrutinized much more closely than applicants from other institutions. Institutions still utilizing GRE testing in graduate admissions will find that UCLA has terrible GRE averages. Hiring institutions, such as multinationals and government, will likely require SAT, GRE or some equivalent test as part of their hiring screen, so UCLA students who have supposedly been exempted by the local academics from any comparative evaluation, will face such an evaluation anyway by prospective employers, and won’t be able to get a job despite their UCLA diploma.
    The basic fallacy is that the institution can crank out a ‘programmed’ engineer to order, starting with any potential student. Unfortunately, this reasoning is flawed.

  7. “That ticket for most of us is higher education.”
    And the ticket to that higher education is to turn the cesspool of teacher union/democratic party driven innercity schools into academic institutions that actually educate their students or let them escape to real schools. If they aren’t educated on par with the rest of the applicants to universities by the time they leave high school, nothing else you do will matter.

  8. Granted that all you say is true. Obeying the law isn’t an ambiguous exercise, and the law couldn’t be clearer here. (Not to mention the significantly higher dropout rates among students admittted via “affirmative action” to institutions whose academic standards they are unprepared to meet.) I am curious, however, as to how you define “talent” in your vision of “empowering admissions officers to search for talent among all students and not just the ‘A’ average, high admissions students.” It’s not hard to imagine admissions officers using “‘socioeconomic’ affirmative action” as a backdoor method of implementing the “race”-based kind.

  9. It was obvious from the start, to anyone who knew anything about how college admissions work, that their response to Prop 209 and other similar measures would be to ignore the law.
    Their process has never been transparent, and as individuals they face no consequences for twisting it to address their own preferences.
    They may complain about the extra work they now have to do to conceal what they are up to, but otherwise they are laughing at the public and people like Connerly who attempted to change what they do.
    In the end these decisions remain in their hands only because they are decisions that most in our society would rather avoid having to confront.

  10. I have to take exception with the last sentence of this article. “Socioeconomic status” is almost always a code phrase for “persons of color”, and is usually invoked to get around pesky laws like Prop 209. By allowing for any compromise of this sort, we would only be giving a wink and a nudge to those who want to sneak in racial preferences.
    I agree on many points, including that academic achievement should not be the only criteria for college admissions, and that a college degree is seen by many as the ticket to a better life. I suggest we change both of these.
    First, let’s look at what a college degree actually provides. Are the skills necessary for success being taught in colleges? Is a college degree truly relevant to all the career paths a person may desire? Are there other, better choices? Trade schools, apprenticeships, job training, and other options can offer valid and valuable alternatives.
    Not every job requires a student to understand the laws of economics and quote Shakespeare. College is hard to get into, hard to complete, and more expensive every year. Is it really providing value to every student?
    Second, if a person does decide to go to college, they should be considered based on all of their achievements, not solely academic ones. But surviving life’s hardships is not an “achievement”. Being from a “disadvantaged socioeconomic class” is not an achievement. Being born a certain color is not an achievement.
    Maintaining a B average while tutoring other students is an achievement. Being an active part of your school community through sports, music, or other extracurricular activities is an achievement. Volunteering in your community (as opposed to the mandatory community service, i.e. slavery, that is being practiced in many high schools) is an achievement.
    Yes, let’s look beyond the numbers and see everything a person has accomplished. But let’s not confuse survival for accomplishment.

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