College Cheating Scandal Puts Affirmative Action in the Spotlight

College Cheating Scandal Puts Affirmative Action in the Spotlight

Dr. Ernest Levister F.A.C.P., F.A.C.P.M.

The college admissions scandal is a blatant reminder of what many of us have long believed: That the process is deeply flawed and can be gamed by those with wealth and influence.

Whenever people say affirmative action admissions policies give Black people (and by extension other people of color) an unfair advantage, I always have to remind them that the deck is stacked against us in the first place. White privilege, systemic and institutionalized racism and nepotism are some of the biggest advantages that white students have when applying for college.

It is not affirmative action that threatens the fairness in the college admissions process, its supporters say, but rather the advantages of the rich and powerful.

Fifty people — from Hollywood stars and top industry CEOs to college coaches and standardized test administrators — are accused of participating in a scheme to cheat on admissions tests and to get students into leading institutions as athletes regardless of their abilities, prosecutors revealed last Tuesday in a federal indictment.

The scandal has spurred widespread debate about why factors such as donations, athletics and legacy status are baked into the admissions process, which has traditionally benefitted wealthy families. Yet affirmative action, which is intended to help underrepresented minorities, gets intense scrutiny and legal challenges.

Affirmative action was developed in the 1960s to address racial inequality and racial exclusion in American society. Colleges and universities wanted to be seen as forward-thinking on issues of race.

Then, in the late 1970s, affirmative action went to the United States Supreme Court. There, the only justification accepted, by Justice Powell, was the compelling state interest in a diverse student body in which everyone benefits from a range of perspectives in the classroom.

Today, when colleges talk about affirmative action, they rarely mention the issue of inequality, or even of a diverse leadership. Instead, they focus on the need for a diverse student body in which everyone benefits from a range of perspectives in the classroom.

None of these changes would have happened without affirmative action. States that have banned affirmative action can show us that. California, for example, banned affirmative action in the late 1990s, and at the University of California, Berkeley, the percentage of Black undergraduates has fallen from 6 percent in 1980 to only 3 percent in 2018.

Decades of research shows Black students who probably benefited from affirmative action — because their achievement data is lower than the average student at their colleges — do better in the long-run than their peers who went to lower-status universities and probably did not benefit from affirmative action. The ones who benefited are more likely to graduate college and to earn professional degrees, and they have higher incomes.

So affirmative action acts as an engine for social mobility for its direct beneficiaries. This in turn leads to a more diverse leadership, which you can see steadily growing in the United States. Research in higher education shows that whites and those from a higher economic background also benefit. These students have more positive racial attitudes toward racial minorities, they report greater cognitive capacities. They even seem to participate more civically when they leave college.

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