Admissions discrimination still a problem

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (U-WIRE) — What if someone filed suit against the commonwealth of Virginia, claiming that the University discriminated against applicants who had not attended the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, citing the fact that those students received more opportunities than those from less fortunate backgrounds?
That just happened in California, where the lawsuit Rios v. the Regents of the University of California will challenge multiple universities and their admissions policies. The suit asserts that the schools’ admissions policies discriminate against students coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The suit, brought by the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, asserts that minority students are at a disadvantage because they receive fewer opportunities in high school than white students do.
Recently, California’s Proposition 209 eliminated admissions preferences in the California university system. As a result, admissions officers are no longer allowed to take the race or ethnicity of an applicant into account — as well they shouldn’t. While minorities are underrepresented at many schools, that is most often a function of their socioeconomic background; non-minorities from similar situations face the same obstacles.
The plaintiffs in the current case argue that a university system that bases its admissions primarily on gpa and standardized test scores discriminates against students coming from less affluent areas. Minorities are disproportionately represented in this group.
As expected, public schools tend to be better in areas of concentrated affluence. This is due in part to a circular system: Property values in a community are affected by the quality of available education, and local property taxes are used to fund local schools. Thus, suburban schools often are superior to those in more urban areas.
It is important to note, however, that this is a function of economics and not race. While the California policies discriminate against a minority of students who grow up in a poverty-stricken area with little educational advantage, a white student from the same area is also at a disadvantage.
But not all schools subject applicants to this type of socioeconomic discrimination. Princeton follows a clearly stated admissions policy that emphasizes the accomplishments of students in their respective situations. As their admission information publication asserts, “We recognize that not all high schools offer the same opportunities. The stronger the promise and potential of an applicant, the more willing we are to overlook possible gaps in his or her preparation.”
Unfortunately, some colleges currently do not have the time, staff or commitment to scrutinize each and every application. Large systems like the University of California often opt for some sort of index-based admissions policy. But by limiting the considered factors to gpa and standardized test scores, the schools also limit their applicant pool.
The problem of income-based admissions discrimination always has been a concern. Naturally, students who attend more affluent schools are more likely to have more advanced courses and better facilities. Likewise, they are more likely to be able to attend test-preparation classes or to hire test tutors. These factors combine to give them a distinct advantage over less wealthy and underprivileged students. Moreover, index-based admissions standards compound this problem by overemphasizing the factors with the most discrepancy between the two groups.
Despite all this, the answer is not the reinstitution of affirmative action. While reinstating the program would boost the number of minority students, it would not solve the underlying problem. The best solution is to adopt standards similar to those of the University of Virginia, Princeton and numerous other schools throughout the country. Instead of focusing solely on absolute or quantitative measures of accomplishment, more emphasis should be placed on the circumstances surrounding their attainment.
Nick Lawler’s column originally appeared in Wednesday’s University of Virginia Cavalier Daily.