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“Affirmative action” has become a catchall phrase when people bring up concerns about how colleges and universities make admission decisions. The racial background of applicants is a touchy issue, and the general public makes numerous assumptions related to how they view this issue. This is to be expected, as being admitted to college is a huge accomplishment. Adding to this dynamic is the fact that seats are limited at the top colleges and universities. In essence, not enough openings are available for each student that meets the general criteria. This leads to a question: What is the fairest way to admit students to college?

Let us look at the situation of two high school seniors at the same school who are classmates. Also, the students are from the same racial background. One student comes from a traditional two-parent, middle-class household. The parents have made it clear that schoolwork and activities are the priority to prepare for college applications and working is for summer breaks only. The second student works part-time during the school year, helps their single parent pay the bills at home but has some limited activities their high school counselor made sure were in place that also provided a wage, based upon a concern about working so much and its impact on grades and scholarship applications.

The first student, who is only working during summer breaks, has 20 activities on their college résumé and also a 3.89 grade point average. The second student, who is working part-time to help the family pay bills, has six activities on their college résumé and a 3.41 grade point average. Remember, the students have in common that they are from the same racial background. They are also both dual-enrolled students who will complete high school with six college credits. If a selective college has one seat left for its freshman class, which student is the most deserving? Should the student with the highest grade point average and more student activities be admitted?

Now let’s add race to the pending college admission decision. If the student with the lower grades and fewer activities is from a minority racial group, was the other student discriminated against if they did not obtain the last freshman-class college seat? This example has now included race and social economic status to the equation. To add another level of complexity, does either applicant have a grandparent, parent or sibling who is a graduate of the university? Was this question asked on the student’s admission application? Does the family member who is a university alumnus have connections on the campus and feel comfortable asking for special consideration in the admission process?

One more layer involves the children of famous people. How does this impact their college application, regardless of their racial background? Even if the famous person does not ask for special admission consideration, if the admission office knows who the student is, does this impact the final decision made by the university? Will the general public assume the student was admitted based upon being the best student for the seat or the decision being somewhat or entirely based upon the fame of the family and potential future donations to the university? Now we have social economic status, race, class, fame and possible multimillion-dollar donations in place when an admission decision was being made.

With all this being the background, is the assumption of affirmative action being based on giving minority students an edge up on admissions applications correct? Not in all cases, as numerous other factors are involved. Again, we are talking about students applying for the most selective schools in the country, not your average state university. Students from literally the whole world are applying. If a school does consider race as some part of the admission process, is this fair to all other applicants? Aren’t we really talking about race mixed with socioeconomic status if race is used as part of the admission process decision? Yes. Is the son or daughter of a famous person—who is a minority—admitted due to race or money and fame? In most cases this has nothing to do with race at all when big money is involved. Besides the prestige of the name on the future degree, what else is at stake when it comes to being admitted to a selective university versus a slightly less selective institution?

What is really the issue? In many cases being admitted to certain colleges means future high-paying jobs, graduate school, medical and law school connections that will set a student up for life. The background of all students mentioned would be great college admission candidates for numerous universities looking for students. The issue is some of these schools will have job-placement offices that tell students it is their job to show them how to apply for and get their own job, versus having the connections to set them up for a great first job after graduation. It’s the different between graduating from a college and placing your résumé on a website or walking into a great-paying position right away.

I do not have the solution to how to make the process completely fair based upon all the dynamics involved. What can help students who do not get selected to the top colleges in the country is a recommitment from other institutions to assist students and alumni make job connections; prepare for graduate school, medical and law school applications; and use their own alumni networks so students obtain benefits as similar as possible for students who are admitted to more selective colleges and universities.

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