Inequities in Admissions

by Sam Stein | 4/22/03 5:00am

Here's to hoping the Supreme Court members are ardent followers of political history. If so, here's to hoping they remember Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugural address on January 20, 1953 where he said: "A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both." Finally, here's to hoping the Supreme Court and Executive Branch heed Eisenhower's advice on the eve of the post-war legislative forum; a forum dominated by the University of Michigan's affirmative action case. For if they are ardent followers of political history, and do remember Eisenhower, then they will see this case as a reaffirmation of privilege's establishment in our society and the absolvement of our principles.

The Michigan case is being called the most important decision on affirmative action in 30 years. Interestingly, the arguments seem centered around whether the 1970's landmark legislation has deteriorated into a quota system. This would seem to be a relevant point of conflict if the playing field (i.e. access to equal education) was even, which it's not. To the contrary of every passionate Bill O'Reilly fan, minorities may have it better in the United States than the rest of the world but they still don't have it nearly as good as the privileged whites. As advantageous as 20 points on an admissions process is, it does not come close to the advantages inherent in being the son or daughter of an upper-class family.

The objectors to affirmative action agree that a quota system was never the intention of the Civil Rights Movement. Substituting race-based affirmative action for financial-based affirmative action seems like a viable option, one that will continue to achieve the fundamental goal of benefiting disadvantaged sectors of society. The problem that I have with the ongoing debate, and ultimately the stance the Bush team is taking, is that the concepts of privilege are being ignored. Doesn't Mr. Bush understand that the inequalities of our society go beyond the admissions office? Does he not understand that even with affirmative action, minority students still face great obstacles? That education costs make it difficult for financially strapped minorities to consider college at all? That once they get into college, they need to pay for the tuition? That once they find the proper loans, they may need to get an off-campus job for other expenses? That they might not be able to take the prestigious internship everyone else gets because they need to make money for the next semester? That once they get into college, find the proper loans, get an off-campus job, and get the prestigious internship, they may face a small thing called racism when applying for a post-grad job?

With all these obstacles to overcome, I find it very hard to argue that affirmative action is providing unfair advantages to minorities. The truth of the matter is that privilege, legacy and financial security perform the same function as affirmative action -- they make the playing field uneven.

No one screams foul play over the cultural bias tests students have to take to get into college. Isn't that an unfair advantage as well?

Understandably, the use of privilege in admissions processes has never been written into legislation. Still, privilege is just as important a component in education and business achievement as affirmative action, some might argue even more so. What better example to use then our own president -- a man who relied heavily on legacy to receive, among other things: his prestigious Yale education, countless billions of dollars to invest in businesses of his choosing, and possibly the presidency. Logically, one would think that a man, who was afforded every opportunity to succeed despite occasional screw-ups -- an alcohol problem here, a DUI there -- would feel obligated to reward those who didn't share his dispensation. Yet for Mr. Bush the question of principles versus privilege has been answered by sacrificing the former for the later. Some of his "proposed ideas" center around principles of achievement, effectively denying the overwhelming influence of privilege. These plans include the automatic admission of the top five percent from every school. This only works to further entrench the burdens of the underprivileged. Before we batter away at the fairness of affirmative action, we must come to grips with the inequalities of the system.

The affirmative action case should resonate with the majority of us Dartmouth students, products of privilege, myself included. There are very few similarities between me and the people this case will most affect. For me, the affirmative action case is a question of principles; for racial minorities, it must seem like another instance of self-perpetuating privilege. This case makes me feel fortunate, nauseated and torn all at the same time. My concerns over summer internships in D.C. or New York make me feel nauseous in light of other people's concerns over the prospect of receiving an advanced education. Knowing that my future is stable makes me feel fortunate. Deciding whether I would sacrifice my scenario to benefit someone else makes me feel torn. My only resolute thought is this: our government is helping to perpetuate privilege among the few. Capitalism is expanding beyond our economy and into the foundations of our educational system, creating a sad irony where the people who have the greatest dependency on the government are the one's being hurt by it the most.