I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the affirmative action for college admissions argument. Yes, there has been and probably still is discrimination based on race when it comes to admitting students into universities and colleges. Everyone will not get into certain schools of choice if slots are reserved for socio-economically disadvantaged applicants. That is the math of it.
Underlying the public policy of preferences is the social goal of redressing past slights against racial and ethnic minorities, slights that resulted in denial of access to educational institutions that issue degrees that have been seen in the past and are still seen pretty much today as keys to the gates of higher quality of life and greater incomes.
It’s why parents are so set on mortgaging their homes to the hilt to send little Johnny and Carol to the best school possible because colleges and universities have sold themselves and their systems and courses of learning as the premier if not only way to obtain the necessary education and skills to work as a manager at McDonald’s. And little Johnny and Carol, properly programmed by parents and guidance counselors, see getting a good job as the only reason for consuming the educational services of Harvard, Yale, Florida State, or the local community college and are willing to go through the insufferable curriculum laid out by these august bodies (i.e. calculus at 8:00 am. Yuck) as the way to learn necessary skills and gain knowledge.
To make sure access is universal, government created the random selector of affirmative action and promotes college as the career path to pursue in this new knowledge economy. Just listen to President Obama’s position on the need for young people to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math for confirmation. Just push students to the bottleneck of the university system, and hopefully affirmative action can get a few of the disadvantaged in so that they can get a chance to take a gander down the yellow brick road of the college curriculum while on the way to quality of life a degree or two promises in The Emerald City.
Meanwhile, American society faces periodic reincarnations of Bakke and Hopwood as today’s U.S. Supreme Court considers Fisher v. University of Texas. In Fisher, the court addresses whether the Court’s decisions interpreting the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, including Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), permit the University of Texas at Austin’s use of race in undergraduate admissions decisions. Ms. Fisher, who I hope has graduated by now from someone’s university, did not make the top ten percent of her class and was required to compete with the rest of the non-ten percenters for the remaining seats at University of Texas. Race is allowed as a factor in admissions for non ten-percenters in Texas and Ms. Fisher argues that race should not be allowed as a factor pursuant to the 14th Amendment.
Here again universities find themselves in the diversity pickle, trying to pursue their mission as educators and playing unwilling pawn in a social policy battle between those who allegedly want access to universities based on merit versus those who believe that affirmative action as a weapon of redress should be applied in the universities.
I believe that colleges and universities should stay out of the “yellow brick road to high quality of life” game altogether. If universities were to announce that we only recruit students who are willing to train primarily as researchers and teachers and commit to a seven year path while helping to develop innovative ideas and concepts and technologies that the private sector has willingly underwritten, and that all of these students must come from the top ten percent of whatever high school they have attended, the affirmative action issue would find itself gasping for that last breath of air.
Where the academy lost its way is when it allowed mixed messages surrounding its mission to be put out by everyone else but the universities and colleges. Universities and colleges do not explicitly sell themselves as high-priced vocational education schools but allow it so that unwary high school graduates can show up with tuition and financial aid money. It’s the price they pay to keep revenues coming in.
Granted most high school students entering college are not coming to be trained as nerdy researchers. I do believe that the non-research types who are matriculating to colleges in hopes of landing a job after four, five, or six years of keg parties, football games, Greek step shows, and last minute, crash studying for exams would be better off deciding their vocational paths before leaving high school and apprenticing with the appropriate private private business or trade smiths to learn their professions. If it sounds like I’m proposing a quasi guild system for high school students to enter, I am.
As for the universities and colleges, to ensure that they don’t have to worry about using affirmative action preferences, they should not accept any state or federal funding unless that funding flows from consulting fees paid by governments for research projects and the fees are not tied to any requirements that incoming students be subjected to the random selector of affirmative action.
Yes, under this model the larger schools, especially those who invested their endowments well, will be left standing. The private degree mills will go to the wayside or turn themselves into trade schools, subjecting themselves to affirmative action criteria in return for government funding and further degrading their status in the eyes of employers as credible sources of graduates. But if applied, we may see universities going back to their primary and best mission, expanding minds and being allowed to completely focus on what they do best: introducing innovation.