The Illusion of Race-Blind Admissions

November 18, 2008

Since the passing of Proposition 209 in 1996, the University of California has faced a statewide ban on considering race or ethnicity in admissions decisions. Recently, a political science professor at the university’s Los Angeles campus charged the institution with “cheating on admissions” by quietly considering information revealed about candidates’ race in their application essays – an act he deems illegal under Proposition 209. In an 89-page document, Timothy Groseclose describes how the institution refused to provide him with 1,000 application files to test his theory that African American candidates were being granted undue favoritism in the admissions process.

The questions Professor Groseclose raised accentuate key flaws in the world’s understanding of how colleges admit students – and especially about the false belief that race can easily be removed from the process.

As my colleagues often say, admissions is more of an art than a science. In his argument, Groseclose plays up the fact that average SAT scores and high school grade-point averages differ by racial and ethnic groups. In most cases, decisions do not boil down to quotas or points systems (which were effectively outlawed by the Supreme Court in Bakke and Gratz). What he neglects is the inherent role of human judgment -- the subjective backbone of the admissions process. To my knowledge, no college or university aspires to break the law. But when the law is ambiguous – which has been a recurring theme of affirmative action court rulings over the past 30 years – it becomes easy to imagine violations where none exist.

While Groseclose claims to be a supporter of affirmative action and policies that aim to increase institutional diversity, his argument is that using information about race revealed in candidates’ essays decries UCLA as a criminal organization. Some critics of affirmative action, such as Ward Connerly (former University of California regent and author of Proposition 209, the statewide ban on affirmative action) want to eliminate all mention of race in any applications.

These critiques raise a simple question: How can we ask applicants not to make any mention of race in their application? Do we specify that students are not permitted to talk about celebrating certain holidays? Can we ask them not to discuss trips to visit family outside the United States for it may tip us off to their racial background? If someone is the head of a high school’s Black Student Union, must she leave it off her list of extracurriculars? Is it not discriminatory to state that mention of learning empanada recipes from Mom cannot be included?

And even if we enforce such restrictions, a more complex question emerges: How far must we go to avoid “illegal activity” when attempting to make the best possible decisions for all applicants? Race can appear in more than just a personal narrative. Will we then be asked to disregard students’ names? Their hometowns? Their high schools? Their parents’ alma maters? Will staff and alumni interviewers need to conduct conversations from behind a screen? With all the blacked-out lines, we will be forced to admit only what we can see – test scores and grades as opposed to artists, scholars, and engaged citizens and people whose backgrounds aren't the same as those who have enrolled in higher education for generations.

While some of these constraints may sound extreme, it is time to acknowledge that eradicating race from the admissions process is not as clear cut as some might believe. In states like California, Michigan, and others where affirmative action has been outlawed, admissions officers need some middle ground. If students reveal elements of their personal background in their essays, or if their names, high schools, or hometowns hint at a particular racial/ethnic group, that information is important – just as important as information on students’ grades and test scores. As long as these institutions have compelling race-neutral reasons for admitting the student, there are no racial preferences at play, and no violation at hand. In addition, colleges and universities should be at liberty to consider personal qualities – such as academic success in the wake of economic or social hardship – that may be associated with, but not necessarily linked to, students’ racial background.

In court rooms and living rooms across America, there is an electrified buzz about the “unfair” nature of considering race as a factor in college admissions. Despite ample research highlighting the academic and social benefits of attending a racially diverse institution made possible by affirmative action, it’s not the benefit but the fairness that is relentlessly called into question.

But here’s a little something to halt the noise: college admissions can’t always be fair. Is it fair that a student with C’s gets into an Ivy League school because his father is a trustee? How about the lacrosse player with SAT scores 300 points below the institution’s average? The daughter of a politician? The Republican at a liberal arts institution? As described by Lee Coffin , dean of admission and enrollment management at Tufts University, each of those students could be viewed as a case of “affirmative action.” So perhaps instead of reopening historical wounds, we should let admissions officers do what they do best: craft a talented and diverse class for that particular institution at that particular point in time. If social justice is what Ward Connerly was after in writing Proposition 209 and Tim Groseclose is after in trying to uphold it, removing race from college applications can only heal the runny nose that has plagued America for decades. To cure the cold, it is the deeper cause – persistent societal racism – that needs to be treated. And in an ironic twist, there has been no right answer to that problem either. But I’m not so convinced we should remove its checkbox.


Julie Vultaggio is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.

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