Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Wrongheaded Approaches to University Affirmative Action

Written by johnleemk on 9:06:16 pm Dec 14, 2007.
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A common justification for affirmative action — discrimination to the benefit of disadvantaged communities — is its righting past wrongs. In the United States, a black or Hispanic student from the inner city likely does not have access to the same opportunities as a white educated at an elite prep school, so it is only right for universities to give the minority applicant priority in admissions.

Of course, this approach has its obvious flaws. A more equitable and just system would probably be one which positively discriminates in favour of those from disadvantaged backgrounds in general, without regard to ethnicity.

But when it comes to university admissions, how is it possible to reconcile this approach with the factor of merit? A holistic admissions process which pays no attention to anything other than merit would obviously tend to favour those who are rich and well-connected. All other things being equal, an American university would prefer someone with perfect test scores and a 4.0 grade-point average who spends her summers building homes for the poor in Nicaragua, than someone with above average grades and scores and spends his weekends at the local soup kitchen.

The conventional response to this is to evaluate people in accordance with the circumstances they hail from. Someone who attends a prep school but fails to make full use of the opportunities he has there may be penalised, while a student at a ghetto school will likewise be rewarded for excelling given his situation.

The problem with relying entirely on this approach is that there has to be some basic floor, some minimum level of competence, for a student to be qualified to attend the university she is applying to. If she cannot handle the work, it does not matter that she did the best with what she had. I could be born into a family so poor that I had to drop out after primary school to support my family — that doesn't qualify me to enter university.

This is why the reality of the admissions process is that if you are poor, you stand a worse chance of admission than someone who is rich — even if admissions officers try to take means and circumstances into account. The rich will always be able to do more than the poor, given that they have more to work with.

Some form of positive discrimination for the economically disadvantaged in university admissions will probably be necessary as long as we have disparate secondary school quality and disparate neighbourhoods. Stopping here, however, would be a very unwise thing to do.

The fundamental problem does not arise at the time when students are applying to university, let alone applying for a job. Trying to apply preferences based on economic circumstance here is a bit like trying to shut the barndoor after the horse has bolted.

What we ought to be doing is remedying the inequalities that led to the disparity in opportunities between rich and poor. This means addressing the fundamental disparity in quality of secondary and primary education. This means trying to bring up different primary and secondary schools to the same standard, trying to ensure every primary and secondary school student can be assured of similar opportunities to stand out, academically and as a human being.

The failure of affirmative action and economic-based preferences in university admissions is that they try to predict how things would have turned out in some alternative universe. Although this will always be necessary to some extent, we must go to the root of the problem, and fix the schools which produce our university students.


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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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