Friday, July 23, 2010

On Reverse Discrimination and All That

Ross Douthat, the token evangelical at the Gray Lady, writes recently on the perception of reverse discrimination that results from preferential treatment for minorities that is affirmative action. Despite our extreme apathy toward the inequities of so-called reverse discrimination, we nevertheless are interested in Douthat's remarks because they touch on an area of professional interest: college admissions.

Douthat notes that a recent study reveals that at elite universities, a minority student is relatively more likely to be admitted, all other factors being equal, if the student is less well off economically. By the same token, white students are relatively less likely to be admitted if not well off economically. In other words, for minorities, limited economic resources are seen by admissions committees as an obstacle overcome, a plus in admissions. The same doesn't apply to whites, who are more likely admitted if they pay their own way.

Of course, elite universities claim that their admissions are "needs-blind," meaning that they don't pay attention to a student's ability to pay as a criterion of admission and so sequester the family's financial information, reported to the university's financial aid office, from the admissions process and personnel. But we with many others believe this standard is readily violated simply by looking up the student's address, noting whether the student attended public or private schools, and following up on other indicators that allow admissions officers to "shape a class" not only in terms of talents, interests, experiences and ethnicity but also in terms of economics. Private colleges' preference for "legacies," or students with family ties to the institution, and their reliance on early decision/action applications to fill a significant number of admission slots probably also skews admissions of dominant-culture applicants up the economic scale, where the people with the familial ties and know-how to play the admissions games mostly reside.

More telling, however, is Douthat's citation of further research revealing that if a student in an aplication reveals certain activities associated with rural life, that student is less likely to gain admission to an elite. Future Farmers of America, 4-H, and JROTC are not helpful for getting a nod from the ivies, it seems. Old money is apparently not comfortable with the subculture of the Republic's rural white folk. Or maybe their dominant politics.

We see several opportunities for elite colleges wanting to set themselves apart to move on this issue.

One would be to acknowledge that the college does have quotas for various economic groups, that they do shape the class to have a certain percentage who will pay full freight and so take such matters into consideration. This risks a PR backlash as the college finally acknowledges the hypocrisy of the needs-blind charade, but inasmuch as students and parents are themselves trying to game the system in various ways, honesty might actually pay off in PR.

Another would be to identify set-asides for working-class kids from the country, maybe accompanied by a few trips by admissions officers to rural locales to encourage talented kids to apply. Let's see if Princeton, on its way to admitting students from all fifty states, can admit someone from Montana whose dad is not a physician and mom is not a lawyer and whose tribe is Celtic, not Sioux. Maybe if an elite college can boast that it has a student-organized country music club or monster-truck appreciation society that isn't self-consciously ironic, we'll know they've taken a step.

But why, Gentle Readers ask, is SWNID so indifferent to the ravages of reverse discrimination? Because SWNID thinks that such experiences, unjust as they may be, are more than offset by the advantages of being part of the dominant culture or at least given access without question to the dominant culture. If a white kid has to go to the best state university in his state instead of an elite private college in New England, his future his hardly ruined. It may even be enhanced. He or she still faces fewer obstacles to making a way through the world than someone who is by reason of physical appearance stigmatized by an ever-declining but still significant number of folk. For persons of pallor there's no net harm, no foul--so no outrage over the person of color given preference in entry to the hallowed halls.

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