Transparent Discrimination
"What is the termination date of your racial-preference policy?"


Peter Kirsanow

Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would require colleges to report the race and socioeconomic status of students admitted as “legacies”–i.e., children of alumni–or through early-decision programs. Colleges that fail to comply would be stripped of eligibility for federal financial aid.

The bill’s supporters maintain that legacy and early-decision admissions disproportionately favor white and wealthy applicants, amounting to “white affirmative action.” (Low-income students are less likely to apply for early-decision admission, since early-decision programs commit a student to one school and thereby eliminate a student’s ability to play schools against one another for more favorable financial aid packages.)

The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Golden reports that the ultimate aim of the bill’s supporters is to prompt colleges to drop such admissions preferences. Golden quotes Sen. Kennedy as stating that the reporting requirements would help students and families make “informed, strategic application and enrollment decisions unconstrained by financial need.”

Sen. Kennedy goes on to state that “[c]ollege admissions systems should promote diversity, reward achievement and be fair.”

Sen. Kennedy is absolutely right. Unfortunately, today’s Supreme Court-approved preferential-admissions programs reward race and ethnicity more readily than academic achievement. They are patently unfair. And “diversity” frequently amounts to nothing more than conformance to liberal orthodoxy–as evidenced by the proliferation of the requirement that applicants submit “diversity essays” satisfactory to the racial politburo.

But the bill is on the right track. It simply doesn’t go far enough.

Students would greatly benefit from yet more transparency in the college-admissions process. That process contains elements that favor some applicants far more than mere legacy preferences. Legacy applicants are two to three times more likely to be admitted than their non-legacy comparatives. If Sen. Kennedy thinks that’s unfair, he should be outraged by the fact that many colleges employ admissions criteria that favor some students over others by a factor of up to 200 to 1. Surely then, colleges should be required to report information about such criteria, the unfairness of which dwarfs that of legacy or early admissions.

Toward that end, there should be no objection to attaching to Sen. Kennedy’s bill provisions mandating that colleges that receive federal aid provide answers to the following questions:

1. Does your school discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity?

Colleges needn’t be shy about responding to this inquiry. After all, the Supreme Court allows elite colleges to discriminate on the basis of race. Since virtually every non-open enrollment school (and even some of those) uses racial preferences in admissions, no one school will stick out. And most colleges loudly proclaim their allegiance to diversity, so they should be eager to respond.

2. If the answer to the above question is “yes,” which races/ethnicities are preferred and which are not?

Most studies show that schools employing racial-preference programs favor blacks and Hispanics over whites and Asians, but a comprehensive analysis has yet to be done.

3. What is the median high school GPA/SAT of your school’s applicant pool? (Please disaggregate by race/ethnicity.)

This shouldn’t be a burden. A scan of college guides shows that most schools already compile this information.

4. What is the median GPA/SAT of admittees from non-preferred racial/ethnic groups? From preferred racial/ethnic groups? (Disaggregate by specific race and ethnicity.)

Here is where college administrators will start to sweat. At many elite schools the median GPA differential between non-preferred and preferred admittees is nearly a full point; the median SAT differential can exceed 200 points. This is a serious legal problem because the Supreme Court only allows race/ethnicity to be used as a “plus”–a feather on the scale–in admissions. But in practice, the right race/ethnicity has the weight of an anvil. The data would almost certainly reveal that few if any schools are actually complying with Grutter. That means litigation.

Furthermore, the data collected from the answers to the above questions will assist in the calculation of an applicant’s odds of admission to a particular school. Most schools already disclose the overall percentage of applicants who are admitted in any given year. Elite schools sometimes showcase these figures as proof of their exclusivity. However, these figures are incomplete and misleading. They fail to reveal that an applicant’s chances of admission rise exponentially if he/she is a preferred minority. For example, thanks to the analysis of Robert Lerner and Althea Nagai at the Center for Equal Opportunity, we all know that the typical black applicant is 174 times more likely to be admitted to Michigan than his white counterpart. But at some schools (and at certain GPA/SAT levels) the odds for preferred minorities can be significantly greater than that.

As Sen. Kennedy noted, this type of information would allow students and families to make “informed, strategic application and enrollment decisions.” An Asian student with a 3.5 GPA and 1300 SAT may decide not to waste an application fee on a school where his odds of admission are only one-tenth that of a preferred minority with a 2.5 GPA and an 1100 SAT.

5. What are your school’s five-year graduation rates? (Please provide this data broken down by race/ethnicity.)

The graduation rates for preferred minorities are abysmal, frequently up to 20 percentage points below those of whites and Asians. There is also some limited data that suggest that the more heavily a school relies on racial preferences, the lower the school’s graduation rate for preferred minorities. While this may be intuitively plain–the greater the preferences, the more likely a school would attract more under-qualified applicants unable to compete against non-preferred students–no comprehensive database exists to gauge the degree of the disparity.

Students and parents could use this information in making enrollment decisions. Why enroll at a school where the data suggests you only have a 35 percent probability of earning a degree, especially if you have to pay $20,000 in tuition for the privilege of flunking out? The publication of such information might also embarrass some schools into taking measures to improve their numbers.

Providing the above information is a small price to pay for the right to discriminate on the basis of race. But the Grutter rationale, taken to its logical conclusion, suggests colleges should provide even more information. The Grutter opinion refers to things such as critical mass, racially neutral alternatives, duration, and the educational benefits of diversity.

Accordingly, several more questions should be put to colleges:

Did your school consider race-neutral alternatives to your racially discriminatory policy? If so, which ones? Why were they rejected?

What are the educational benefits the school allegedly derives from a diverse student body? How did the school make that assessment? What’s the evidence of these benefits?

What is your school’s minority population? What is your school’s critical mass of preferred minorities? How did you arrive at that figure? What data support your determination?

What is the termination date of your racial-preference policy?

Publication of the answers to these questions would have an interesting effect not just on the educational and public-policy establishments, but on the market as well. More information would allow consumers (students) to make more rational application and enrollment decisions. This in turn might require colleges to adjust their admissions policies in response.

Federal, state, and local governments require banks, insurers, manufacturers, contractors, and other employers to provide copious racial data. Colleges should provide the data also. But that would lead to much protest, embarrassment, and litigation–so don’t expect to see this information any time soon.

Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


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