Affirmative Action Has Failed. It Never Had a Chance to Succeed

(Photo: Dreamstime)
College admissions committees can’t repair the damage caused by family dissolution.

This morning the New York Times published an extraordinary, data-rich article examining the outcome of diversity efforts at colleges and universities from coast to coast. The results, quite frankly, are sobering.

After decades of affirmative action, billions of dollars invested in finding, mentoring, and recruiting minority students, and extraordinary levels of effort and experimentation, black and Hispanic students are “more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago” (emphasis added). White and Asian students, on the other hand, remain overrepresented as a percentage of the population, with Asian students most overrepresented of all.

On the one hand, these statistics represent a staggering failure. It’s difficult to overstate the modern campus obsession with diversity. To judge from marketing materials, campus investments, and the explosive growth of diversity bureaucracies, increasing minority representation on campus isn’t just a priority on par with, say, a good math, English, or engineering department, it’s deemed to be an indispensable part of a high-quality college education. That’s the legal rationale that’s used to justify racial discrimination in college admissions — that there is a “compelling state interest” in creating a truly diverse educational experience.

On the other hand, however, one wonders whether failure was inevitable. Not even the most aggressive of affirmative-action programs can find students who don’t exist. And when it comes to college admissions, the problem isn’t a lack of collegiate demand for qualified minority students but rather a serious deficiency in supply. There are simply not enough students who are ready, willing, and able to do the work.

That’s not to say that affirmative action is meaningless or irrelevant. Absent admissions preferences, the number of black and Hispanic students would decrease even further. It does mean, however, that educational disadvantages exist long before the college admissions process, and the college admissions process can’t come close to closing the gap. Here’s the Times:

Affirmative action increases the numbers of black and Hispanic students at many colleges and universities, but experts say that persistent underrepresentation often stems from equity issues that begin earlier.

Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities, according to the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Wait just a moment. There’s little doubt that these factors matter, but isn’t there a word missing from the Times’ summary of disadvantages? Isn’t it, quite possibly, the most important word? Yes, I’m thinking of “family.”

Here’s an interesting fact. The cohort that’s most overrepresented in American colleges and universities, Asian Americans, also happens to have the lowest percentage of nonmarital births in the United States. In fact, the greater the percentage of nonmarital births, the worse the educational outcomes. Only 16.4 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander children are born into nonmarried households. For white, Hispanic, and black Americans the percentages are 29.2, 53, and 70.6, respectively. Taken together, that means that staggering numbers of Hispanic and black children face a degree of family stress and uncertainty that their white and Asian peers simply don’t experience.

While it’s of course true that correlation doesn’t always indicate causation, one of the most important realities explored in Robert Putnam’s vital book, Our Kids, is the extent to which childhood stresses can plague kids for the rest of their lives. Family dissolution and family instability place extraordinary pressure on young hearts and minds, and one doubts whether better lab equipment, motivated teachers, or new school buildings can ameliorate the aggregate effects of such profound loss.

No one should argue that increased resources make no difference. But to omit the influence of family on educational outcome is to conveniently forget the elephant in the room. Teachers know the importance of family, and they feel its absence. A good friend taught four years in an inner-city elementary school, and she told me that out of 100 kids (25 per year) exactly seven lived with their mom and dad. None lived with married parents. Only a small minority of single moms ever showed up for parent-teacher conferences. How much money will put those kids on equal footing with peers from intact, engaged families?

Indeed, there’s abundant evidence that even vast increases in public spending on education hasn’t led to corresponding increases in test scores, and when you understand how education really works, it’s easy to understand why. One of the most common characteristics of high-achieving students is they come from families that prioritize academic success. Yes, there are exceptions. Every college class includes high-achieving kids from single-parent homes, but at scale family involvement is indispensable.

We often don’t like to hear that cultural problems only have cultural or religious solutions because that’s hard, that’s long-term, and that’s out of our control.

But rather than focus on families, our political culture spends 90 percent of its time talking about 10 percent solutions — investing vast sums to move the margins. Part of this rests on fundamentally flawed conceptions of human nature, including the notion that government programs and government spending can replicate the advantages inherent in two-parent families. Think of Barack Obama’s now-famous “Life of Julia” graphic, which chronicled all the ways the Obama administration could elevate Julia and her children, with nary a man in sight.

In Jessica Gavora’s memorable phrase, Julia was married to the “Hubby State.” The Hubby State is the sexual revolutionary’s dream — you gain personal autonomy without losing security or opportunity.

But part of our unwillingness to talk about families rests in something else — a sense of resignation and despair. After all, what can we do? What’s the four-point plan for building a marriage culture in neighborhoods where kids may grow up without knowing a single person who lives in an intact home? We often don’t like to hear that cultural problems only have cultural or religious solutions because that’s hard, that’s long-term, and that’s out of our control. So, we change what we can change — curriculum, spending levels, admissions policies — and hope for the best.

No one should think that if we could wave a magic wand and immediately knit families back together then our nation would cure all its ills. Racism and its legacy still haunts this nation, and a myriad of other factors would lead to different outcomes. But we can say, and we do know, that intact families are greater assets to children than even the most generous taxpayers or the most diligent college admissions committee, and not even the most generous taxpayers or the most diligent admissions committee can fix the inequality that damaged families create.


Campus Racial Preferences, Again

Skin Color and the College Application Process

What Ivy League Affirmative Action Really Looks Like

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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