Reality check for American dream

November 16, 2001

Affirmative action brought more minorities into US higher education. But, Sarah Murray writes, it is under threat and the alternatives are not compelling.

After the devastating attacks on New York and Washington and the wave of anti-Arab sentiment that followed, eyes have focused on the continuing need for diversity and tolerance in US society. Higher education institutions still have trouble admitting sufficient numbers of ethnic minorities to their campuses - African-Americans, for example, are still about half as likely as whites to attend college. Moreover, several recent court actions threaten their ability to create more racially diverse student bodies.

The war against terrorism is itself affecting the development of education policy. Attendance at October's fourth national education summit conference in New York was down. Nine of the 25 state governors due to participate cancelled and ten of the almost 40 corporate leaders who had planned to attend sent their regrets.

But beyond the current slowing of policy-making, the longer-term issues remain. One of the most controversial in recent years has been affirmative action.

First implemented in the 1960s, the key turning point was the Bakke decision, a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that stated that a university could - to achieve a diverse student body - take race and ethnicity into account as a factor in student admissions. Since then, the numbers of minority students who have completed four years in college has risen from 16 per cent of men and 12 per cent of women in 1974 to 21 and per cent respectively in 1999, and there has been an increase in the number of minority academics with full tenure.

But affirmative-action programmes have been challenged in the courts and in the political arena. Opponents of affirmative action - such as the Centre for Individual Rights, a non-profit law firm that provides free legal representation to clients without access to legal advice - say the constitution states that no one should receive favour because of race, colour or ethnicity and claim that white students have been disadvantaged by some universities' admissions policies.

Signals coming from the courts have been mixed. At the end of July, a federal appeals court panel in Atlanta ruled that the University of Georgia's use of its numerical system was not permissible. In Michigan, two federal district court judges have separately upheld the undergraduate admissions policy at the University of Michigan and declared the law school's admissions policy at the same institution unconstitutional.

"As more and more of these cases come out - and they come out with widely diverging opinions - it is very difficult for universities to determine what exactly they are allowed and not allowed to do," says Ann Springer, associate counsel at the American Association of University Professors.

Elizabeth Barry, associate vice-president and deputy general counsel at Michigan, argues that affirmative-action schemes hardly damage other students' chances of securing a place at the school. "We had a statistician testify in the law school case that a white student's chances of getting in would go from where they are now, which is .40, to .44 if we abandoned our current policy and made it colour-blind. It is not meaningfully affecting a white student's chances of getting in."

But more important, she says, abandoning affirmative action will have detrimental affects on the student body. "Unfortunately, we have some living laboratories of what that would look like because affirmative action has been banned in California, in Washington by voter referendum and then in Texas by court case and in Florida by gubernatorial order," she says. "If you look at what's happened in those states, the pattern is the same. At the flagship schools in those states, minority enrolment has dropped dramatically and stayed low."

Alternatives to affirmative action do not offer compelling solutions. Some states have policies whereby the top 10 or 20 per cent of high school students are guaranteed university places. But as high school provision varies in quality, universities do not always take the most competitive students.

Others use financial assistance schemes and support programmes once students enter university to help overcome any academic weak points they might have. "But that involves some redundant expenditure because you're compensating for what did not happen in the K-12 (primary and secondary school) system," says Hugh Price, president and chief executive of the National Urban League.

Remedial programmes also highlight what many call the "pipeline issue" - that is, until minorities students can be assured a better standard of secondary education, their chances of going on to tertiary education remain limited.

"There is a definite link with elementary and secondary education as far as preparing young people to receive higher education is concerned," says Allan Baker, president of the education business group at ING Aetna Financial Services. "Public institutions have to step up to the plate and do a better job of improving our high school education."

Some see a gulf between the ideal of the American dream and the reality of social exclusion. "What we have is hundreds of years of systematic discrimination - the presumption that you can level the playing field in 40 to 50 years is rather naive," says William Harvey, vice-president and director of the Office of Minorities in Higher Education.

Springer agrees. "We've struggled since our inception as a country as to how to balance the needs of such a diverse society with the American ideal of individualism," she says. "The romantic notion that everyone pulls themselves up by their own boot straps was what America was founded on, but the reality was that the boots are very different sizes for different people."

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