The Pros and Cons of Affirmative Action in the College Admissions Process

Affirmative action for US colleges is aimed toward lower-income families and those ethnicities that have faced social hardship as a minority status in the nation’s history. Ostensibly, the policy was established to redress ethnic or social groups who had been suppressed by means of institutional racism, social discrimination or even subtler forms of disenfranchisement. Yet, however well-intentioned the motives were that created it, affirmative action today remains a hotbed of charged political dispute.

The premise can be understood in the analogy of a weighing scale. It can’t really be argued that the scales weren’t unilaterally weighed in the favor of Caucasian males for the largest portion of this nation’s history. The rationale behind affirmative action was that to make things equal for everybody, the scales needed to be tipped a bit heavier on the other side to compensate for that. In this analogy, the points of contention can be readily identified:

Do the programs used to ‘balance the scale’ effectively combat racial and social inequalities? Or do they simply transform it? Could the scale eventually balance itself, without the potential side-effects of attempting to hasten the process?

At the university level, affirmative action takes the counterweight role in that an urban youth with a rough upbringing, who may be smarter than his or her academic performance shows for it, would be’contextually’ viewed when compared to somebody from a more upscale neighborhood. The argument is that a young black male faces particular stresses in a low-income area that his white counterpart in a median/high-income area does not. This is most likely accurate, but like anything that’s based on statistics, there is a large degree to
which qualifying criteria on such a broadly scaled program can be
misinterpreted.

Suppose a middle-class African-American family can afford to send their child to a prestigious university and a low-income Caucasian family cannot. Under the current system, the African-American youth would be eligible for certain types of need-based scholarships that the policy assumes the Caucasian youth doesn’t need, and in efforts to achieve a racial balance, the university would rank the African-American student as more desirable even if the two students had identical academic records. While private schools have more leeway in establishing more strictly merit-based enrolment and deciding financial aid off of that, most universities face government or social pressure to ‘influence’their demographics.

Even if the two students display identical academic performance and live in the same income range, the student belonging to a particular ethnic group would have a slight edge over the other.

So there are the clear pros and cons to this system. On the one hand, impoverished youths are being given more opportunities than ever to
obtain a university education, which could open innumerable doors for them and their families. On the other hand, this policy has an inherent risk of reverse discrimination, in which ethnicities or income-levels with a historically positive academic or social position would be negatively weighted, even if they were qualified.

By relying on statistics, the policy is geared to help those who through no fault of their own, are placed in a disadvantaged social position. However, by relying on statistics, the policy also serves to reinforce racial stereotypes. Often, universities will recruit athletically-proficient African-American students for their sports teams whose grades may not meet the schools ordinary standards, bumping other qualified applicants out of the way. Or a school with poor math
scores will encourage Asian-Americans, who statistically perform well with math, to give it a boost.

Working solely with statistics can lend itself to wide swaths of misinformation and racial manipulation. While the system helps many disadvantaged youths, it arguably disadvantages just as many others of comparable merit, and leads one to question whether or not this sweeping social reformation effort is actually revising and renaming the problems it set out to resolve.