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A College Counselor’s View of Affirmative Action

In a guest post, Rafael S. Figueroa, dean of college guidance at the Albuquerque Academy, in New Mexico, shares his view of affirmative action. Mr. Figueroa was formerly associate dean of admission at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut.

Recently, during a college-search meeting with a junior and his parents, the issue of racial identity came up. The student’s father is white, and his mother is Hispanic. The student was wondering if he should identify himself as Hispanic when applying to colleges. “I tried to convince him that was OK,” explained the father, “but he doesn’t think he is a real Hispanic.”

Despite my familiarity with the admission process, I paused. This is not a simple question, and it touches on a critical issue facing American higher education: What place, if any, should racial and ethnic background have in admissions decisions?

Although maintaining a racially and culturally diverse student body is an important goal for colleges and universities, it sugar-coats the real issue. Affirmative action was never meant to combat racism or discrimination; it was designed to end segregation. Affirmative action is about the inadequate representation—in schools, government, and workplaces—of racial and ethnic minorities even after “separate but equal” was struck down. Although some say that the lack of representation in higher education is merely a symptom of inadequate educational resources, this does not negate the need to address that symptom.

Neither is affirmative action about helping the disadvantaged. It’s a matter of race and ethnicity—not economics. Programs aimed at increasing socioeconomic diversity, while beneficial, are not a proxy for achieving racial integration. Affirmative action is not about compensation for any group; it’s about integration of all groups. It’s not about the past; it’s about the present.

For most colleges and universities, affirmative action is not a concern because they admit a majority of their applicants. Only about one-third of American colleges take race or ethnic background into consideration at all. Institutions that do consider the ethnic and cultural background of applicants do so with care and professionalism.

Unfortunately, many people do not understand how affirmative action actually works because the admission process often defies logic. Admissions officers at selective colleges are in the business of denying the qualified, of passing over the deserving. Far from a science, admissions is an attempt to maximize the experience of every student who enrolls at a given institution. The process never has been—and never will be—objective. To quote Fred Hargadon, former dean of admission at Stanford and Princeton Universities, “we do precision guesswork.”

Opponents argue that affirmative action amounts to “racial preferences” for certain minorities. This is a misleading term. Colleges do not admit any applicants based only on their race. Such a program would never pass the strict-scrutiny test required by the Supreme Court.

In practice, applicants are reviewed in light of all their contributions, or “pluses.” Minorities may receive a plus that nonminorities do not. Athletes may also receive a plus that those who play a musical instrument do not. Students from underrepresented geographic regions receive a plus at some colleges. But those pluses are not enough to admit students who are not qualified. And the pluses that underrepresented minorities receive take nothing away from the qualifications of majority students.

In a well-designed admissions process, no single factor is controlling. Many white students are admitted who are great artists, musicians, or leaders. No one doubts that they are also qualified academically. In turn, many qualified racial and ethnic minority students are not admitted because students who were more desirable for other reasons took the spots available.

Certainly, the pluses given to applicants for their athletic or artistic talent do not rely on classifications protected under the Constitution, and are therefore not deserving of the scrutiny placed on race or ethnicity as a factor. I do not here argue that colleges should be free to use race without careful consideration.

Admission depends entirely on the context of student achievement, however. Ignoring the full context would be like admitting students with the highest grade-point averages without looking at what classes they had taken to achieve those grades. In that scenario, a student who got all A’s while taking few challenging courses would be admitted over a student who took numerous Advanced Placement courses and got one B. No one would advocate for such a system. In America today, a student’s race or ethnicity is just as important to understanding his or her achievement.

So how important is race or ethnicity? If you told me an applicant’s standardized-test scores and nothing else, I would be unable to say whether he or she would be admitted to a highly selective college. If you told me an applicant’s race or ethnicity, I would also be unable to guess whether he or she would be admitted. Tell me about the applicant’s test scores, grade-point average, high-school curriculum, and extracurricular activities, and my guess would become very accurate.

Yet, even if I had all that information, I would still be guessing. No outsider can tell what a college’s applicant pool will look like in a given year. And every year a balance must be found among all the different abilities and institutional priorities.

When a college receives many more qualified applicants than it can admit, how can it bring together a community of diverse backgrounds and talents without denying some who are qualified? It simply cannot be done.

Yet our higher-education system has recognized great value in achieving diversity. So much so that sometimes qualified students are denied admission so that other qualified students who bring a different perspective can be admitted. This makes the American higher-education system better for all students. And what could be more compelling?

Race-sensitive admissions is not a perfect solution. Not every admission process is well balanced and worthy of being called a “narrowly tailored” means of achieving integration and diversity. Some programs should be altered or struck down. But removing race and ethnicity from the process altogether may lead us back down the path toward racial segregation in higher education.

The best answer lies in allowing race-sensitive admissions to work as intended, so that these important decisions are made with the most complete information about each applicant. The answer lies in a truly holistic admissions process.

This brings me back to the meeting in my office. I turned to the junior who was considering whether or not to call himself Hispanic. I asked him to describe his mother’s family, to describe how that part of his background shapes the way he thinks, feels, and reacts to the world around him. His face lit up as he talked about traditions, the stories, the food, and the music he grew up with.

“The final choice is yours,” I told him. “But I think your ideas and views are different because you are part Hispanic. I think your colleges would want to know that. What they do with that information is up to them.”

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