Affirmative Action, the Top 10% Rule, and the Current Ineffectiveness of Governmental Involvement in Higher Education

My views on affirmative action have since changed. I now support it.

While I think the top 10 percent rule is great for geographical diversity, it should not be on the basis of academics alone.

Affirmative action has always been a controversial and politically charged issue. Just ask any Asian attempting to apply for an Ivy League college and getting completely stonewalled before wondering how things might have changed if they were only Hispanic, African, or Native American. (I will be transparent and admit that I have MANY personal qualms about affirmative action).

That’s why many college students and I raised an eyebrow when Fisher v. Texas gained momentum and made it to the Supreme Court (oral arguments began today). Affirmative action is something that affects every high school senior who wants to obtain a college degree. Virtually every college practices some form of affirmative action (usually in the form of racial quotas) and make race a visible part of the admissions process. They typically justify this with their “mission” to promote campus diversity and are driven by the fear of getting sued for lacking diversity.

In this post, I would like to illustrate the flaws and fallacies of affirmative action, the top 10% rule, and other well-intentioned but detrimental governmental policies that dictate the collegiate admissions process.

Thomas Sowell (who admittingly has a more conservative/libertarian bias) argues that affirmative action and racial quotas allow minorities to attend colleges that are out of their league. Because the course work is too demanding and a drastic departure from the less vigorous high school, they become discouraged and drop out.

This is problematic on two fronts.

First, these same people could have graduated and attained better education in a less prestigious university that is actually close to their skill level. To highlight the point using an extreme example, consider a minority student who could go into UT even without affirmative action but instead goes to MIT. Because MIT strains even the most gifted individuals, said student, being inherently less qualified than the average MIT student, is hard-pressed to adapt to such disparities when he could have been successful in UT.

Second, it wastes valuable spots for other solid candidates, which is incredibly unfair for them. The effect on whites is relatively neutral (so the ginger there should (wo)man up), but creates reverse discrimination against Asians.

More importantly, is race even the best basis for reverse discrimination? I realize that a stereotype threat exists among racial minorities: they and their teachers perceive these minorities to have less inherent potential than their peers, and it quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, I remain unconvinced that race is causally prominent, let alone the biggest cause, towards the existence of huge achievement gaps. Just because Africans are Hispanics are likelier to be in poverty or face poor schooling doesn’t mean that race plays a bigger role than socioeconomic background and quality of schooling.

This is precisely why I believe that the burden of proof falls on supporters of affirmative action. If you compared students with different races but the similar socioeconomic backgrounds, is there still a wide achievement gap? If you compared students with different races but similar overallquality of schooling (this includes similar preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, and even teachers), how much of an achievement gap would still exist? If you controlled for both of these factors, would there even be a gap anymore beyond the margin of error?

Even if race alone featured a wide achievement gap, affirmative action is a mere band-aid to cancer. Even without accounting for its flaws (see above), the achievement gap would be better solved by increasing the quality of schools and teachers and teaching them to vigorously combat stereotype threats and racial discrimination, but that’s an entire essay by itself.

To sum it up, under current policies, it wouldn’t be inconceivable if a poor Asian in a dropout factory would get admitted over a rich African in Exeter when they have similar qualifications. That is, to put it bluntly, a gross injustice.

Don’t even get me started on the top 10% rule. This policy doesn’t make sense for three reasons:

First, grades are a poor indicator of overall talent. They correlate more closely to good test-taking skills rather than mastery of classwork. They completely ignore involvement in extracurricular activities or leadership or social skills. I have seen both idiots in the top 10% and very gifted individuals not in the top 10%. This rule overemphasizes grades when actual course mastery, extracurricular activities, and leadership skills are far more important in the real world and are a far more important criterion for admission in Ivy League schools.

Second, it is inherently discriminatory. Variations in the curriculum among States, districts, schools, and even different teachers mean that a grade in one place doesn’t mean anywhere the same thing as it does to another. Moreover, the top 10% have much better grades in competitive schools than they do in weaker ones.

Third, it makes admission a lot more difficult for those who are not in the top 10%, whether it is difficulty taking tests, external factors, or intense involvement in extracurricular activities. I have no idea what the admission rate for UT Austin is for those who are NOT in the top 10%, but considering how the majority of students attending were admitted through the top 10% rule, it’s probably not very good. This crowds out students who might even have more overall merit than a top 10%er.

Affirmative action is a good idea in theory, but race needs to be delinked from consideration. Similarly, the top 10% rule makes theoretical sense, but needs to delink grades from school identity.

It is far more sensible to make minor adjustments based on socioeconomic background and overall school quality (what happens in elementary school and middle school shapes what happens in high school), which would indirectly aid racial minorities because they are disproportionately the ones stuck in poverty and dropout factories. Finally, it should account for overall talent (course mastery, extracurricular involvement, and leadership skills) rather than grades.


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