Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Affirmative Action in University Admissions

Written by johnleemk on 11:45:18 pm Oct 7, 2007.
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In the United States, one of the more controversial issues surrounding education here is affirmative action. Many universities have a "holistic" admissions process, one which takes many factors, such as interviews, personal statements and extracurricular activities into account.

Of course, there is one other factor — race. A Native American or Hispanic with a 3.5 GPA probably stands a better chance than a white or Asian with a 3.8 GPA in university admissions.

Why? Because these groups have been historically underrepresented amongst those who attend university — and also because they are often capable of bringing a different point of view than, say, a preparatory school-educated white male.

But affirmative action always raises troubling questions. The first objection should be plain: not all Native Americans or Hispanics are disadvantaged, and not all whites go to prep schools.

The second also is quite obvious: why should someone less qualified than someone else win? If you are clearly more intelligent and more accomplished than I am, why should I get the nod and not you?

The "diversity" argument is one which I think somewhat does justify affirmative action in universities. Intellectual environments like college thrive on different points of view, and a black person (as a general rule) does not think the same way a white person does.

I do not see a whole lot of merit, however, in the argument that since race correlates with access to opportunities, we should discriminate on the grounds of race.

The reason is simple: you can quantitatively describe a person's race, as well as a person's socioeconomic status. It is impossible to do the same with regard to subjective points of view — how do you measure the intellectual "diversity" a person can bring to the campus?

Thus, in the latter case, it is acceptable to view race as a roughly correlated variable. The same cannot be said for the former; if we are trying to give the disadvantaged a hand, it makes no sense to accept a rich Hispanic and reject a white who grew up in an impoverished neighbourhood.

The real problem is now this: if we have justified affirmative action on the grounds of intellectual diversity, what is an appropriate tradeoff between merit and diversity? At what point do we say someone is not able enough to gain admission, or that someone does not bring enough diversity to the table?

A university's primary purpose is to educate; thus its first priority must be admitting those capable of handling the workload of a university education.

The next priority is to assist the disadvantaged; a rich person has other ways to succeed in life that don't necessarily involve a university education. Thus, some moral calculus comes in: at what point on the tradeoff curve between academic calibre and socioeconomic background do we say enough is enough?

Likewise, the issue of diversity necessarily follows — and again, we must solve some messy moral calculus problems in determining the appropriate tradeoff between merit and diversity.

What is the appropriate tradeoff? That is a question which institution will answer differently, and how it answers the question is what will determine its character.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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