As Harvard faces a federal lawsuit claiming the Ivy League university discriminates against Asian—American applicants, questions regarding the effectiveness of affirmative action are resurfacing. Even with affirmative action delineating racially-based acceptance rates in elite colleges, diversity in private universities still pales in comparison to that of four-year public colleges.
This is far from the first time affirmative action has garnered criticism in the courtroom. In the 1970s, the University of California, Davis medical school applicant Allan Bakke cited that he had been unfairly denied access to the program. Bakke’s undergraduate GPA and test scores were higher than the accepted minority students, but the medical school program set quotas for minority student acceptance. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action benefited the student body by citing the benefits of diversity within schools.
Diversity has been found to increase idea generation and creativity in teams — something especially important in the business world. As companies turn to hiring more diverse teams of employees, it follows that colleges are preparing students for the diversified workforce. But more than this, diversity helps expedite social development—one of the major aspects of life in college. Diversity in the classroom is not just a mandated requirement. It’s becoming clear diversity is
tantamount in higher education.
A more recent challenge to affirmative action came in 2016 as the case Fisher v. University of Texas was heard by the Supreme Court. Interestingly, Students for Fair Admissions — the group currently levying claims of bias toward non-Asian—American students in Harvard’s admissions process — supported Fisher, a white woman who was denied admission to UT twice. Writing the Court’s majority opinion, then—Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that universities should be allowed to achieve “qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness.”
As Fisher v. University of Texas shows, diversity is one of those qualities that make for greatness. But, in 2015, The American Council on Education surveyed 338 nonprofit four-year colleges, finding 60 percent of the elite, selective schools use the applicants’ race to consider admission. So, if diversity is important for higher education, why are a preponderance of the schools using affirmative action elite colleges? It seems the low cost of admissions at public universities is still better at creating classroom diversity than affirmative action ever could.
It isn’t just race that determines diversity, though. Economic diversity should be taken into consideration, as well. Elite schools do just as bad, if not worse, on this front. Jennifer Giancola and Richard Kahlenberg, researchers for The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a scholarship organization for students who exhibit financial difficulty in paying college tuition, reported that high-achieving students from wealthy families were three times more likely in applying to top, competitive universities than those from poorer families. “Low-income, high-achieving students are often discouraged from applying to selective colleges for reasons ranging from sticker price to culture shock,” wrote Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss.
Although private institutions are often lauded as having more expensive and better resources, public universities more than make up for this lack of funding with a higher rate of diversity. The benefits of diversity outweigh its detractors, yet low tuition is still far more effective at instilling a diverse student body than affirmative action. Rather than focusing on the latest applicant who failed to get into a school that values status over merit, perhaps it’s time we pay more attention to public universities.
Michael Frank is a 23-year-old political science and English senior from New Orleans, Louisiana.