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UC should be allowed to consider race in admissions process

By mary clark

Feb. 23, 2012 7:26 a.m.

The future of affirmative action in the college admissions process is hanging by a thread in the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by a white student who claims her rejection from the University of Texas was because of an attempt by the school to increase racial diversity.

Though this case comes specifically from Texas, the debate over the role of affirmative action in higher education is being rehashed in California as well, and the Supreme Court’s decision may affect California’s.

Affirmative action was struck down in California with the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, which as of last week is being challenged by a group of 46 minority University of California students in a San Francisco appellate court.

Affirmative action has provided a wealth of controversy since its inception. Many view such a measure as a handout and an arbitrary selection process, often wrongly lamenting they are losing out because they aren’t a minority.

But such an argument only stands in a society that has transcended racism and undone all of its effects ““ two things we have yet to do.

Factors of race, socioeconomic advantage and educational background are still closely related in present-day society. Modern poverty rates for black and Hispanic Americans are still well over twice that of whites.

Proposition 209, which was hailed as a piece of equal rights legislation by its proponents, prohibits colleges from using race as a bonus in the admissions process. The results, especially at UCLA and UC Berkeley, have been considerable, with the universities’ black and Latino populations decreasing by about half in the few years following the decision. Minority enrollments reached a low in 2006, at which point UCLA only enrolled 96 black students in its freshman class.

This number has risen in the last few years, but the current enrollment of black undergraduate students is still only 4 percent of the student population.

Proponents of Proposition 209 argue that the admissions process should be based solely on academic merit. But the irony of affirmative action is that colleges are allowed to consider anything other than race in the admissions process, including socioeconomic status and place of residence, which they do, said Gary Orfield, UCLA professor of education and law.

But the idea that the process, with or without affirmative action, is only merit-based is almost laughable.

When I applied to UCLA, I wrote an entire essay on my background, where I was from and what experiences helped shape my life. I told them that my parents are Republicans, that I played volleyball and that I’m from Oklahoma.

Did the university not then use this information to decide whether or not I would be a good addition to the diverse UCLA community? Are these characteristics not just as arbitrary as race?

According to UC media relations director Steve Montiel, the UC aims to promote diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation among many other things. But within the confines of Proposition 209, we have seen, even at UCLA, that maintaining diversity in terms of race has been a challenge.

Affirmative action has proven to work better, though not perfectly, than other less direct methods of promoting diversity, like plans to guarantee admission to students based on class rank. Additionally, the argument that affirmative action students might not succeed academically has been refuted, Orfield said, adding that affirmative action students can and consistently do excel at schools like UCLA and UC Berkeley.

The selection process will never be perfect for a school like UCLA that has upward of 60,000 applicants a year. But when you do have a quality, like race, that more often than not affects a student’s education history, it makes sense for it to be considered in the admissions process.

It’s hardly controversial to say that students, usually minorities, face gross inequalities in their high school educations. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend high-poverty secondary schools.

While some applicants to the UC system come from well-qualified schools and may even pay to have personal college admissions tutors read their application essays and review their applications, many others from less affluent backgrounds, who are often minorities, come from high schools that didn’t offer Advanced Placement classes and had high dropout rates and poorly trained teachers. And standardized tests, like the SAT, that claim to somehow measure intelligence, do little to level the playing field.

Should these students be granted an alternative evaluation system, or should we just maintain the status quo, perpetuating the problem of educational inequalities closely tied to race?

As long as these inequalities exist, the debate over affirmative action will too.

“There is no perfect answer, but affirmative action is the best we’ve come up with so far,” Orfield said.

And for that reason, Proposition 209 should be repealed, allowing the UC to include race in its admissions process, just as it considers students’ other non-academic and often arbitrary qualities.

Email Clark at [email protected]. Send general comments to [email protected] or tweet us @DBOpinion.

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