Broader College Acceptance Standards, For Better and Worse

Lucas Morel

November 1, 2001

Last week, the California Board of Regents voted to broaden the admissions criteria for all applicants to the UC system. In their minds, diversity begets diversity. By considering economic background and non-scholarly achievements along with high school grades and SAT scores, they hope to improve racial diversity at UC schools. This not-so-veiled response to Proposition 209, which in 1995 banned affirmative action in California’s public universities (as well as government hiring and contracting), forgets that affirmative action exacerbated the problem of screening applicants according to strict numerical thresholds by making proportional representation of preferred minorities the sign of non-discriminatory admissions.

California’s previous use of affirmative action, with its emphasis on getting the right proportion of blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians enrolled in the state’s universities, ignored doing justice to each individual applicant. It simply made sure enough of these minorities enrolled in their schools, rather than ensure that each accepted student was prepared and therefore likely to benefit from the rigors of a college education—especially at the flagship campuses of Berkeley and UCLA.

But by making mere representation rather than excellence the standard for minority achievement, the result was a diminishing of minority aspirations for college performance. For example, knowing that a certain proportion of blacks would be accepted as long as their grades and test scores met minimum standards of achievement, many blacks chose to do just that. They gave themselves an excuse not to perform to the best of their ability, knowing they would still reap the benefits that typically go to the top performers. Why work any harder than you have to?

As Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character (1990) and John McWhorter’s Losing the Race (2000) demonstrate, black “anti-intellectualism” replaced white bigotry as a leading cause of the “educational achievement gap” between American whites and blacks. This occurred right about the time affirmative action took hold nationally. And with black graduation rates now trailing that of white and Asian Americans by a margin of 15%-17%, respectively, we learned that affirmative action meant never having to say you’re sorry.

With the adoption of Prop 209, California first attempted to continue affirmative action by other means through a “4% plan.” Any high school senior graduating in the top 4% of his class, regardless of the comparative quality of the school, was automatically accepted into the UC system. This invited black and Hispanic students to do just well enough to get accepted, with little incentive to perform to the best of their abilities. In addition, this policy gave K-12 schools little reason to improve their teaching by offering more honors and AP classes and the customary rigors of instruction that all students need to compete at the highest levels. What President Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” now poses the greatest obstacle to minority progress in achieving the American dream.

The more comprehensive admissions process adopted by the California Board of Regents seeks to accomplish the same objective as the affirmative action rejected by 54% of California voters. So why did Ward Connerly, author of Prop 209 and a California regent, vote for the new policy? First, the policy was amended to preclude consideration of race. But Connerly also believes that applicants will now be looked at more closely as individuals and not as mere quota-fillers. This will lead academia in the right direction if considering what individuals have to offer intellectually and personally eclipses what they represent ethnically.

The NAACP recently began an advertising campaign to promote education as the key to black success. One wonders why they did not think of this decades ago, when blacks continued to lag behind their white peers after the overt vestiges of white racism in America had faded away. They should have launched a “new era of excellence” campaign, where minority students were challenged to meet or exceed the same standards now applied to their white and Asian classmates. Racial diversity in higher education would then follow as the by-product of a more important minority achievement: a well-trained mind and a disciplined soul.

The “achievement gap” in American education will not close until the nation’s schools become serious about closing it as opposed to looking as if they’ve closed it. Instead of appearing like bastions of equal educational opportunity, through policies aiming for racial diversity, schools should make educational opportunity a noble aspiration for all American school children. If education were the goal, rather than an academy that simply “looks like America,” diversity would take care of itself.

Lucas E. Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center.