Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Obama, affirmative action, and my take on it

No comments:
This past Sunday, in an interview on ABC TV, Barack Obama stated that he does not believe there is a need for race-based affirmative action in college admission. He believes that poor white kids are just as disadvantaged as poor black kids, and that rich black kids are just as advantaged as white rich kids. He goes on to suggest that race-based affirmative action should be replaced with some kind of financial-need-based affirmative action program.

... and now my take ...

I think we need to distinguish between two aspects of college attendance - admission and financing.

After admission, I have absolutely no problem with colleges offering need-based scholarships, so students from poor families can actually accept the offer and attend. (Of course, such scholarships should require the student to maintain a reasonable grade level - no assistance program should allow students to slack off on someone else's dollar.)

Until the point of admission, however, financial need shouldn't be considered. Admission should be based solely on test scores, grades in school, and extracurricular activity. Race, financial status, religion and other such factors should not be considered at all. As a matter of fact, I would say that the admission boards that make these decisions shouldn't even have this kind of information (including the candidate's name, since that can also prejudice a board.)

There is nothing inherent about poverty (or race, etc.) that makes someone less intelligent or less educated. In college, I made several friends who came from poor families. They were not admitted on the basis of lowered standards, but because they were able to get good SAT scores and get good grades in high school, despite their upbringing.

Sure, many poor kids come from families where education is considered unimportant, or from incompetent public schools, and that is unfortunate, but how will these kids be served by admitting them to a college where the coursework is too advanced for them? Either they will be unprepared for the difficult coursework or the college will have to dumb-down the coursework - neither of which is going to be good for the student in the long run.

With regard to a possible solution, if there is a problem with the students' families, there is nothing anybody else can do about it. If there is a problem with the public schools (and we all know there are problems with many of those schools), then the solution is to fix those schools, not dumb-down college admissions procedures.

Of course, until the public schools do improve (which we know may take a very long time), some kids will fall through the cracks. One possible remedy would be some kind of optional post-high-school program (perhaps run by colleges) that offers remedial courses to promising students from bad school districts, specifically to get a student up to the level where he can get admitted to a college on his own merits. Many colleges already have programs like this, so perhaps the real solution is to convince more colleges to start up similar programs of their own.