Racial Preferences in Admissions: The Real Choice We Face

The most repugnant aspect of the status quo is that it amounts to pervasive racial discrimination

The vast majority of Americans of all races say they oppose racial preferences in college admissions. But most of us would also be highly distressed to see a drastic drop in the number of black and Hispanic students at our top universities. A Supreme Court decision banning racial preferences would produce just such a drop.

It would, that is, unless educators and politicians found other, ostensibly colorblind proxies for maintaining something close to the current levels of racial diversity. That's what President Bush and his Justice Department have urged them to do, citing as models the responses of three of our largest states to the bans on overt racial preferences that were imposed by a 1996 referendum in California, a 1996 federal court decision in Texas, and a 1999 order issued by Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

These states have found ways to return black and Hispanic enrollments almost to the levels they had reached under the racial-preference regime, with the significant exceptions of California's two most exclusive state universities, Berkeley and UCLA, and some graduate and professional schools. All three now guarantee admission to the top graduates of high schools throughout the state, including the worst schools in the poorest (and blackest) neighborhoods. They have also, to varying degrees, given less weight to objective measures of academic merit such as the SAT, on which non-Asian minorities generally do poorly, and more weight to subjective evaluations, which can facilitate covert use of preferences. Other states would likely adopt similar approaches.

In short, the de facto "resegregation" predicted by some champions of racial preferences has proved unacceptable to the body politic. Voters do not want to see the descendants of slaves losing access to the most visible gateways to opportunity. So the real choice confronting the Court and the nation in the two pending cases involving the University of Michigan and its law school is not between racial preferences and conservatives' colorblind ideal. The choice is between the status quo and other stratagems designed to preserve racial diversity. The question is which would be worse.

The most repugnant aspect of the status quo is that it amounts to pervasive racial discrimination by virtually all top universities, not only against whites, but also against Asians and other minorities who are not on the preferred list. At the University of Michigan, for example, a 3.0 GPA combined with a black, Hispanic, or Native American pedigree can get you the same score on the "selection index" as an otherwise indistinguishable white or Asian applicant with a 4.0 GPA. This has about the same race-norming effect as would a law penalizing white and Asian applicants by treating their A's as though they were B's and their B's as though they were C's. It also fosters the notion that some races are more equal than others. Consider House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's January 18 statement that "the dreams of countless eager young people will be crushed" if the Court bars racial preferences. What about the crushed dreams of white and Asian kids? They are the ones being penalized on account of their race. But to Pelosi, it seems, they count for nothing.

Racial preferences at elite universities do nothing for the truly disadvantaged, many of whom can barely read. Most preference beneficiaries are more affluent than many of the white and Asian applicants who are penalized for being "over-represented." And if fostering cultural and intellectual diversity were really the universities' goal, they would have preferences for fundamentalist Christian students and conservative Republican professors.

None of this is to deny that preferences for descendants of alumni, which apparently got a mediocre student named George W. Bush into Yale, are even more unfair than preferences for descendants of slaves. But the biggest problem with racial preferences is not unfairness. It is divisiveness. Doling out opportunities by race encourages Americans to see themselves as members not of a national community but of racial groups struggling for racially allocated shares of the national pie.

At Michigan and other top campuses, the racial preferences are so enormous as to amount to a systematic double standard. At the undergraduate school, membership in a preferred race gets you 20 points on a 150-point "selection index." A legacy preference gets you 4 points. The index would (for example) rank a black or Hispanic kid with a 3.4 GPA and a 1,010 SAT score ahead of a white or Asian kid with a 4.0 GPA, a perfect 1,600, and a legacy preference. The university says that more than 70 percent of its black and Hispanic law students and more than half of its black and Hispanic undergraduates would not have been admitted if judged by the same standards as white and Asian students.

How do preferentially admitted students fare in academic competition once in college? Not well. Most do graduate. But they have failure and dropout rates several times as high as those of their white and Asian classmates. Most are clustered in the bottom fourth of their classes, according to various studies. Very few do well enough to win admission to elite professional schools on the merits. That's why those schools also use racial double standards. Not surprisingly, shockingly high percentages of their preferentially admitted students end up flunking their medical boards and bar exams.

Of course, some black and Hispanic students need no preferences and excel at all levels. But it's debatable whether those admitted through preferences end up with as great a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence as they might have acquired at less selective institutions, where they could be academic stars.

Why do universities need such a heavy thumb on the scales to get what Michigan calls a "critical mass" of black and Hispanic students? It's not that the SAT or other objective measures of academic merit are unfair to them. To the contrary, black students get lower grades in college (on average) than white and Asian students with the same or similar SAT scores.

The fundamental problem—papered over by preferences—is that a shockingly small percentage of black high school graduates are well prepared for academic competition at the highest levels. Inner-city schools and the culture of poverty are only partially responsible. Even middle-class black kids from educated families do much worse academically, on average, than white or Asian kids from similar or less affluent families at the same schools.

Abhorrence of racial preferences combined with dread of "resegregation" has driven many people (including me) to grasp somewhat desperately for other ways of engineering racial diversity. And the most conspicuous alternative does seem more fair. That is the so-called "X-percent" approach, which guarantees admission to the top 4 percent of all high school graduates in California, the top 10 percent in Texas, and the top 20 percent in Florida. This approach, as well as more direct class-based preferences for the brightest poor kids, has the considerable virtue of rewarding the hard work of disadvantaged students of all races who have shown exceptional grit and promise. Such kids seem more deserving of a boost, more likely to work hard, and more culturally diverse than the more affluent black and Hispanic kids—with middling academic records—who are the typical recipients of racial preferences.

The risk is that such approaches could do much more harm to academic standards than racial preferences do. Even the best graduates of the weakest high schools have for the most part been so poorly educated at home and at school, as evidenced by extremely low SAT scores, that they may struggle more with college work than preferentially admitted students do now. The evidence appears mixed on whether most of them can ever catch up.

Beyond that, X-percent plans have proved far less potent than preferences at getting black and Hispanic applicants into the most elite campuses, such as Berkeley, UCLA, and their professional schools, and may be infeasible for most private colleges. The urge to maintain or increase current black and Hispanic enrollments will tempt diversity-driven admissions officers to make the selection process more subjective, the better to import covert racial preferences. This approach typically involves putting less weight on high school grades, and much less weight, if any, on test scores, while inviting applicants to submit essays celebrating their "cultural heritage" and casting themselves as victims struggling against racism, poverty, broken homes, learning disabilities, or other obstacles.

Jeffrey Rosen of The New Republic has warned that a decision barring racial preferences would lead to "abandonment of objective standards of academic measurement," would turn "the leading state universities into remedial academies," and might even "destroy" them. If I become convinced of that, I might be tempted to take another swallow of racial-preference poison. More on this in a future column.