Friday, October 5, 2012

Affirmative Fantasy

In one of the latest contributions to the commentary on the Fisher case, sociologist Thomas Espenshade speculates that institutions of higher education may be facing the end of affirmative action. Citing the study of affirmative action students he did with his co-author Alexandra Walton Radford, Espenshade acknowledges in a New York Times opinion piece that students admitted to selective colleges tend to graduate toward the bottom of their classes. However, Espenshade argues that no policy, including socioeconomic affirmative action, would generate as much racial and ethnic diversity as race-based affirmative action. “Most important,” he writes, “our study found that without affirmative action, racial diversity could only be preserved if there were no racial differences in learned skills and knowledge or in college preparedness.” In other words, he sees affirmative action as necessary precisely because it brings relatively unprepared students with comparatively low academic skills and knowledge into selective colleges, and these students tend to remain behind others throughout their academic careers.
Professor Thomas Espenshade
If affirmative action ends, Espenshade observes, maintaining racial and ethnic diversity will require either “giving more weight in admissions to those factors that are sometimes close substitutes for race” (i.e., engaging in subterfuge) or “putting their endowments and influence behind a comprehensive effort to close the learning gap that starts at birth.” Now, according to most indicators, contemporary colleges and universities are not doing a very good job of educating their own students. Yet, Professor Espenshade would have us believe that these institutions have almost limitless potential to re-shape the lives of children across the nation, taking over the work of communities and families, and ending all variations in educational preparation across demographic categories. If you believe that this is within the capability of higher education, I’d like to forward you some of the investment opportunities I’ve been receiving in my email from unknown parties abroad.

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