Why This Affirmative Action Debate Is Different

By Ronald Brownstein

The lines of argument over affirmative action have changed little since the idea first combusted into controversy in the 1970s. But as the Supreme Court nears another critical ruling on the issue, the social and demographic context for these arguments has been transformed in ways that make the choices both more complex and consequential.

The Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling on higher-education affirmative action in the 1978 Bakke case, when it invalidated a numerical quota system for minority admissions at the University of California medical school but famously allowed colleges and universities to consider race as a “plus factor” in admission. Since then, the Court has further tightened but not entirely banned the use of race in higher-education admissions—a pattern most observers expect the justices to continue when they rule soon on the latest dispute.

The Fisher v. University of Texas case has followed the familiar grooves from Bakke, with supporters of Abigail Fisher, the rejected white applicant, decrying “reverse discrimination” and the school’s backers championing diversity and remediation of prior discrimination. Yet these arguments are landing in a nation facing a radically reconfigured racial reality. Listening to them in today’s America is like trying to play an eight-track tape on an iPad.

When the Supreme Court decided Bakke, whites still made up 80 percent of America’s population, including almost three-fourths of those under 18. But minorities now constitute more than 36 percent of the total population and are on track to become a majority of the youth population before 2020.

Inevitably, this demographic wave has crested into the academy. Federal figures show that nonwhites comprised 47 percent of the 2011 class entering higher education, up from one-third in 1996. The problem is that those overall numbers mask the emergence of what Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce have called a “de facto dual system” of higher education in which minorities and low-income kids are funneling mostly into the least selective (and least rewarding) schools.

As Carnevale and Strohl have documented, from 1994 to 2006 African-American and Hispanic students increased from one-fifth to one-third of the enrollment at community colleges, and from one-sixth to two-fifths at the four-year schools rated least selective. Yet in the upper-rung universities considered “very” or “most” competitive, the combined black/Hispanic share remained stuck at only about 12 percent. Whites, meanwhile, plummeted as a share of all high-school seniors but still make up 75 percent of students in the most selective schools, almost unchanged from 78 percent in 1994. Likewise, youths from the top quarter of highest-earning families filled just over two-thirds of the seats at the most selective universities in 2006, slightly more than in 1982.

This sorting matters so much because more-selective institutions spend much more money per student and produce better results for them on every important measure—from graduation rates to starting salaries. The cumulative effect is that while higher education still allows individual students to fulfill the American Dream of climbing from humble origins, as a system it now mostly stratifies America’s economic and racial inequalities.

In the Bakke era, affirmative action was justified mostly on grounds of fairness—the need to remedy past discrimination by opening doors historically closed to minorities. But amid America’s demographic transformation, the allocation of higher-education opportunities now raises different issues of competitiveness and social stability. With the absolute number of whites in the workforce expected to decline through 2030, the U.S. will struggle to compete if it cannot move more low-income and minority youths through college. And a society that relies on minorities to fill most of its future workforce needs but reserves the best opportunities primarily for the children of white, college-educated parents will court endemic social tension.

With educational opportunity already stratifying by race and class, this seems an inopportune time to retrench affirmative action. But even if those programs survive, they cannot reverse these trends alone. Whatever the Court decides, the challenge of hardening inequality in higher education demands further responses. One option is replicating programs (like those in Texas and California) that guarantee public-university admission to the top graduates in all high schools (which lifts students from economically or racially segregated communities). The Century Foundation, in a recent report, spotlighted another key: strengthening community colleges, which remain the first rung for many less-advantaged students, and prodding top universities to accept more transfers from them. To improve social mobility, argues the foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg, “it’s more important to improve community colleges than to have a victory in the affirmative-action wars.”

In the Fisher case, those wars’ latest skirmish, the Supreme Court ultimately is ruling on a tactic not a goal. And however the Court treats the tactic of affirmative action, the goal of democratizing opportunity in a diversifying society remains urgent—and unmet. “We’ve got to step on the accelerator here,” says Amy Wilkins, a senior adviser at the College Board. “We certainly can’t stall out or back up.”

This article appears in the May 31, 2013, edition of National Journal.

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