How Much Should Race Matter In College Admissions?

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Funny lede in Adam‘s story on arguments yesterday in the Supreme Court’s big affirmative action case:

Three white lawyers argued before a mostly white Supreme Court on Wednesday about whether the University of Texas-Austin’s admissions process—designed to diversify its student body—discriminated against a white applicant.

Besides the Court being almost entirely white, Adam notes that every one of the justices has an Ivy League pedigree, “so debates about preferential admissions to elite schools hit close to home.”(Our summary of how the University of Texas considers race in admissions is here.) It’s an important point; Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic says affirmative action is really only an issue at the nation’s most elite schools.

Research has shown that only the top 20 percent of colleges actually bother with racial preferences. This makes sense, since those are the schools with high enough standards that they need to make occasional exceptions to them. Assuming that 15 percent of students selected at these schools are black or Hispanic, and absolutely all of them were taken based on their race, that would make affirmative action just 3 percent of all selective college admissions in a year. [University of Chicago’s Brent Hickman] had a similar estimate. He found affirmative action reduces non-minority enrollment at the top quarter of schools by 4.2 percent a year.

So why the furor over such a tiny number of seats in a given freshman class? Weissmann shouts out a parking space analogy from the economists Roland Fryer and Glenn Loury:

Suppose a single unused parking space in front of a popular restaurant is reserved for disabled drivers. Non-disabled drivers who observe the unused space while trying to park might resent this policy, imagining that it prolongs their parking search. But when parking is tight it is likely that, even if the disabled space were not reserved, it would already have been taken by the time a given driver comes along. When many non-disabled drivers overestimate their chance of getting the unreserved space, the perceived cost of a policy favoring the disabled could be large, despite fact that the policy has a negligible effect on the mean duration of a parking search. So too, it would seem, with racial affirmative action in higher education.

Tejinder Singh at SCOTUSblog said Chief Justice Roberts didn’t try to camouflage his dislike for UT’s admissions policy. “He suggested that the university’s holistic admissions process might be little more than a smokescreen for racial preferences, noting to [UT’s lawyer and the U.S. solicitor general] that ‘race is the only one of your holistic factors that appears on the cover of every application.'” Roberts also dismissed the questions about the legal standing of Abigail Fisher, the white UT applicant who is suing because she said the school’s policy is discriminatory. (I asked about this yesterday because I was confused.) “But yesterday’s argument undermines the theory that Chief Justice Roberts switched teams for good,” Singh wrote. “In all likelihood, he is a safe vote for Ms. Fisher.”

But Inimai M. Chettiar and Roopal Patel wonder if it’s even possible for “a student’s racial background [to] really be separated from who he or she is as an applicant and a human being.”

As part of its application process, UT Austin asks students to write about “an issue of importance to you … [and] the significance of that issue to yourself, your family, your community, or your generation.” The University of Michigan asks applicants to “describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.” Almost all college applications include similar essay questions.

When faced with questions like these, students often must write about their race or ethnicity to respond adequately. In UT’s court filings, an admissions officer provided exactly such an example. A white male applicant to UT Austin wrote how working at an after-school program in an underprivileged black neighborhood helped him get out of his “bubble.” To understand the applicant’s story, the officer had to consider his race.

Other morning links:

  • The number of folks looking for unemployment insurance hit the lowest mark in more than four years. Will the less-grim-but-still-not-great economic numbers be a boon to President Obama, who is now trailing Mitt Romney in the national polls?
  • Romney’s also now dead even in Florida and Virginia, but Nate Silver tries to make sense thinks that the Republican contender still faces an uphill battle for electoral votes.
  • Aisha Harris wrestles with the AV’s Club’s list of the best films of the 90’s. “There’s nothing ‘pure’ about a canon built from the idiosyncratic tastes of eight, mostly male, mostly white people. There’s nothing ‘pure’ about canon-building at all. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun or worthwhile! But if you’re going to do it, you should consider the implications and the consequences, and proceed accordingly.” Harris and her Slate colleagues put together a list made up of films directed by people of color and women. (To Clueless and Princess Mononoke, I give a hearty yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas.)
  • Paul Ryan posed for Time lifting weights and wearing a backwards hat.