Higher education affirmative action is in the news again. It’s not all that surprising that in recent years people are more comfortable discussing its merits. It has been (almost exactly) fifty years since Ole Miss first integrated and fifty years is a long time. It’s enough time for people to forget and it’s enough time for generations to come of age free of the first hand effect of segregation. Add to that a shift in our collective attitude about college being for everyone; and it’s no doubt the subject of parity crops up. The continued need and efficacy of affirmative action is often discussed in academic circles. Lately, it is also often played out in the courts and media.
The lawsuits (or protests) that bubble up often have to do with a perceived lack of fairness. Thwarted students compare their own applications and numbers (i.e., test scores, grades, rankings) against those who were admitted. The would-be (white) students compare their own larger (or equal) numbers to that of a non-white student and feels there has been discrimination. All issues of affirmative action aside, that understanding of the admission process is deeply flawed.
Straightforward scorekeeping is the determinate in plenty of endeavors. When you play sport, or lose weight; numbers are all that matter. But most of life’s external accomplishments are much more subjective than a numbers game. The skyrocketed costs, four-star amenities, and assumption that college is for every high school graduate, has created a sense of a transactional relationship. There are thousands of four-year colleges/universities in this country. Before a student applies he/she has presumably poured over websites and determined; “Yes, I’d be a good fit.” The student knows the requirements for admission, knows the average SAT/ACT scores and class rankings, and knows they fit the bill. Rejection stings, and many struggle with trying to get past the hurt. Parents and children will rattle off admitted high school classmate’s rankings, and GPAs in their struggle to understand the rejection. Resentments and overall icky behavior often ensues. No one wants to be told; “Thanks but no thanks” particularly when the rejected was set to pony up (potentially) over six-figures for the privilege of acceptance.
But what these parents and their children might not realize is that those numbers are simply how one gets to be considered. Creating an incoming class involves much more than comparing numbers. The goal of creating a class is generally two-fold; the students should be able to succeed and the students should be able to add to their classmates’ educational experience. “Succeeding” can mean many things and varies according to schools and programs. What a student can add to the experience is dependent upon the historic nature of the school, the location, the discipline, and many other elements.
Whether our country is in need of creating equal opportunity for all based on ethnicity and race is a subject for another day. When we do engage in that conversation we should think long and hard about economic class and first generation students when we talk about equal opportunity. But until then let’s be crystal clear about college admissions. It is not simply a numbers game; (hint: that’s why there are essay components and pages of extracurricular activities on the application.)