Ted Kennedy’s Excellent Idea: Disclosing Admissions Preferences
Stuart Taylor Jr., National Journal, Jan. 31
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and other Democrats want to require universities that take federal money to disclose detailed statistics on the economic status and race of the alumni relatives they admit. The purpose is to dramatize that affluent whites are the main beneficiaries of “legacy” preferences and pressure universities to end them.
This is a fine idea. Legacy preferences are unmeritocratic, unfair, inherited privileges — “a birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy,” in the words of Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. — for people like Ted Kennedy of Harvard and George W. Bush of Yale. And while legacy preferences may bring in enough alumni gifts to enable some private universities to provide more help for less-affluent students, it is the public universities that would feel the most pressure from voters to end such preferences. Kennedy’s bill, filed in October, would also require universities to disclose data concerning early-decision programs, which also favor affluent students, who don’t need to shop for the best financial-aid deals.
I do have an amendment to suggest. It is akin to a proposal by Peter Kirsanow, a Bush-appointed member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, writing in National Review Online last November: Why not require publicly funded universities to disclose detailed data about all of their preferential-admissions programs? This would shed light on who benefits and who does not, on the nature and magnitude of the preferences, and on how much they compromise academic standards. The questionnaire could go something like the following.
Please provide data showing:
1. Any preferences in admissions or financial aid based on family relationships with alumni, alumnae, or donors; status as a recruited athlete; state or region of residence; economic status; or membership in any racial group, disaggregated into specific groups.
2. For each preferred category, and for each racial group of applicants, (including unpreferred racial groups): all written and unwritten policies as to the weight given to the preferred characteristic; the median high school grade point average and SAT (or ACT) score; and the percentage admitted.
3. For each preferred category and each racial group of admitted applicants: the percentage receiving financial aid, median amount received, and median family income, to the extent available; the numbers of Caucasians, Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Native Americans; the median high school GPA and median SAT (or ACT) score; the median college GPA of enrolled students; and the percentage who graduate within six years.
Such disclosure would provide a wealth of information for voters trying to assess how universities are using public money and for students deciding where to apply and enroll. It would make clear how many get in as “legacies,” and how big a preference they get. It would detail the dismal academic performance and graduation rates of many recruited athletes. It would dramatize how few disadvantaged and working-class students of any race are served by our top colleges.
It would also expose the stunning magnitude of the racial preferences — which are far greater than the legacy preferences — used by all (or almost all) selective institutions, and who benefits from them. For that reason, my amendment would be anathema to Kennedy and other advocates of racial preferences. They know that greater public awareness may be the only obstacle to the perpetual entrenchment of racial preferences in all walks of American life, now that the Supreme Court has broadly upheld their legality.
Dozens of surveys over three decades have consistently shown that more than two-thirds of Americans — and, in many polls, lopsided majorities of African-Americans — oppose racial preferences. (Polls show much greater support for “affirmative action,” but the reason is that that phrase can be read as including aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, recruitment, and outreach efforts.) On no other issue have elected officials and establishment leaders succeeded in implementing so pervasively a policy that the public rejects so overwhelmingly.
What accounts for this success? A large part of the explanation is that racial preferences have lived on lies and on concealment of how “affirmative action” actually works. This obfuscation has lulled into quiescence voters who might well be outraged were they fully informed. The news media typically give a misleadingly benign aura to racial preferences by portraying them, inaccurately, as boosts for the underprivileged and by obscuring the way they operate as double standards that discriminate systematically against whites and Asians and in favor of less-academically-qualified applicants who are, in many cases, more affluent.
Most Americans don’t realize that the racial preferences at the University of Michigan Law School, upheld by the Supreme Court last June in Grutter v. Bollinger, are worth more than 1 full point of college GPA — catapulting black and Hispanic applicants with just-below-B averages over otherwise similar whites and Asians with straight A’s. Or that the average SAT scores of the preferentially admitted black students at most elite colleges are 150 to 200 points below the average white and Asian scores. Or that this SAT gap understates the academic gap, because black students do less well in college, on average, than do white and Asian classmates with the same SAT scores. Or that most recipients of racial preferences, unlike most legacies, end up in the bottom third of their classes and have far higher dropout rates than other groups. Or that, according to a study of 28 highly selective colleges by two leading supporters of preferences, some 85 percent of preferentially admitted minorities are from middle — and upper-class families.
The transparency that I, and Kirsanow, propose might not sit well with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, either. She wrote the 5-4 majority opinion in Grutter while at the same time joining the four Grutter dissenters in striking down the racial preferences used by Michigan’s undergraduate school, in Gratz v. Bollinger. On its 150-point “selection index,” the college awarded a gigantic, 20-point bonus for being black, Hispanic, or Native American. This dwarfed the 4-point legacy preference and the 12-point boost for having a perfect 1,600 SAT score. (A mediocre SAT score of 1,010 was worth 10 points, so the difference of 590 SAT points was worth only one-tenth as many selection-index points as being of the right race.) The difference between a 4.0 and a 3.0 high school GPA was also 20 points; the effect was to penalize whites and Asians by treating their A’s as B’s, their A-minuses as B-minuses, and so forth.
But the law school’s racial preferences appear to have been even heavier. So why did the Court uphold preferences more extreme than those it struck down? O’Connor did not say. But the answer was clear, not only to the four Grutter dissenters but also to Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who voted to uphold the preferences in both cases: The law school’s preferences were difficult to measure and shrouded in obfuscation, which the school called “holistic review.” And O’Connor liked that.
Under this approach, “the winners are the ones who hide the ball,” Souter wrote in his Gratz dissent. In a separate dissent, Ginsburg wrote, “If honesty is the best policy, surely Michigan’s accurately described, fully disclosed college affirmative-action program is preferable to achieving similar numbers through winks, nods, and disguises.”
Contrary to Ginsburg’s implication, the college did not voluntarily disclose the operation of its preferential admissions system. It was a closely guarded secret, as at most other institutions, until exposed by a freedom-of-information-act request and a lawsuit. But with no less a champion of racial preferences than Ginsburg advocating full disclosure, how can others plausibly object? Especially while demanding disclosure in the case of legacies?
One benefit of disclosure might be to dissuade universities from using double standards so blatant — whether for legacies, athletes, or racial minorities — as to offend voters. A second benefit might be to focus attention on the real crisis in minority education: The average black 17-year-old is academically less prepared for college than the average white or Asian 8th-grader. A third benefit might be to shame elite universities into seeking more needy and working-class students, who are far more underrepresented than blacks and Hispanics. Such “economic preferences” are widely popular because — if carefully designed — they are consistent with traditional concepts of merit. The hope is that the hard work and raw talent of the best of these needy students will enable them to catch up with college classmates from more-prosperous backgrounds and better high schools.
Economic preferences would also be the best corrective to the inequity of legacy preferences. After all, racial preferences — while draped in the rhetoric of civil rights and fairness — often leapfrog the children of lawyers and doctors over academically better-qualified children of laborers and secretaries.