Speed of ascent

David Brooks / The New York Times /

Published Jun 30, 2013 at 05:00AM

The Supreme Court didn't exactly shock the world Monday. But, by imposing stricter standards on how courts review affirmative action plans, the court did send another small signal that the era of explicitly race-based affirmative action is coming to an end.

During their heyday, affirmative action programs produced some lasting good. It would have been immoral in the civil rights era to have an archipelago of white colleges and universities dotting the land. Affirmative action plans prevented that. As William Bowen and Derek Bok wrote in their classic work, “The Shape of the River,” in 1960, only 5.4 percent of blacks between 25 and 29 had graduated from college, while, by 1995, that share had risen to 15.4 percent. The share of black medical school students climbed to 8.1 percent from 2.2 percent.

But affirmative action programs also perpetrated some noteworthy wrongs. They reinforced crude racial categorizations, which repelled many Americans. They discriminated against Asian-Americans. Thomas Espenshade of Princeton reviewed admissions data from 1997 and found that Asian applicants had to outscore African-Americans by 450 points on their SATs to have an equal chance of getting into a college. The programs also produced a mismatch between minority students and the schools they attended, which sometimes ended up hurting the students they were designed to help.

The evidence on this is hotly disputed, but Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. make a compelling case in their book “Mismatch.” Because some minority applicants get drafted into schools where they wouldn't otherwise be accepted, they are more likely to be stuck in the bottom of their classes and more likely to flee from difficult science and engineering majors.

So affirmative action gave us some wildly good and unfortunately negative outcomes, and it stirred up fierce debates. But that's not why these racial preferences are going away. They are going away because underlying realities have changed.

First, economic inequality now trumps racial inequality as the chief source of disadvantage. Sean Reardon of Stanford has looked at a range of studies over 50 years and found that whereas the black/white test score gap used to be nearly twice as large as the rich/poor gap, now the income gap is nearly twice as large as the race gap.

Second, the ethnic makeup of the country has become more complex. At the dawn of the affirmative action era, it was easy to see the chief racial divide as between whites and blacks, but the mosaic is much more complicated now.

Third, we're living in an age of data. Once, it may have seemed reasonable to measure a person by a few crude metrics: SAT, GPA, race. But now colleges and universities, especially with financial aid forms, have access to a wide array of data on all applicants and can potentially get a much more personalized look at the disadvantages each individual has overcome.

The result is that race-based affirmative action, while not being rejected, is being subsumed within class-based affirmative action.

In his Century Foundation report, “A Better Affirmative Action,” Richard Kahlenberg shows how state university systems in places like Texas and Colorado and at places like the UCLA Law School are devising class-based preference systems, which ameliorate economic disadvantage while still producing racially diverse campuses.

What often happens is this: Voters or courts in a state will strike down race-based affirmative action. Minority enrollments initially plummet. Then administrations devise class-based systems that look at the specific obstacles applicants have overcome. Minority enrollments recover, at least to a significant degree, and the new system is fairer than the old.

What are we looking for when we admit a student into a university? We're looking for speed of ascent, not academic attainment at one moment in time. A student who's risen from an economic catastrophe to achieve a B-plus average has more speed of ascent than the child of law professors who has an A average. The first student may be more expensive to teach. She may not write as many alumni checks. But she'll reflect more credit on her school and society.

We now have the means to measure speed of ascent in a fairer and better way. Explicit, raced-based affirmative action programs weren't wrong for their time, but they are being replaced.

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