Kyle Henson | Detangling Diversity

The Logical Skeptic | True diversity in college admissions should look beyond race

· February 20, 2012, 10:31 pm   ·  Updated February 22, 2012, 11:01 pm

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Kyle Henson
The Logical Skeptic

I don’t care about the color of your skin. But unfortunately, most colleges do when they consider your admission.

Diversity has certainly become the newest buzzword both nationally and at Penn. From The Office’s “Diversity Day” episode to Penn’s $100-million Faculty Diversity Action Plan, it’s a difficult word to escape and define.

Generally, the word is defined as the characteristics that make us different or serve as points of unlikeness.

At first glance, the idea of promoting diversity seems pretty reasonable. Its purpose is to encourage heterogeneity in order for people to learn from those with different perspectives.

In college admissions, it should give a fair chance to all applicants. But efforts to instill diversity in schools have strayed from this original mission.

Characteristics that are most easily categorized, such as race and sex, are often singled out to attain diversity. Yet these factors are some of the worst predictors of what actually makes an individual unique — which should be the true measure of diversity.

Efforts to improve the racial makeup of colleges serve as the worst example of measures to improve diversity. Penn, along with nearly every other university in the United States, considers race a part of its “holistic” evaluation process.

This kind of affirmative action — originally meant to redress generations of racial and sexual discrimination that had preserved white males in a position of prominence — traces its origins to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But now it has created a landscape that reinforces societal perceptions of racial differences instead of emphasizing the meritocracy that would allow education to reach its potential as a true equalizer.

A 2004 study completed by three Princeton professors found evidence of such deviation. Using a data set of over 120,000 applications to selective universities over the preceding 20 years, the authors found that “African-American applicants receive the equivalent of 230 extra SAT points (on a 1600-point scale) and being Hispanic is worth an additional 185 SAT points.”

In a follow-up study in 2005, two of the authors concluded that without racial considerations, the acceptance rates for “African-American candidates would fall from 33.7 percent to 12.2 percent” while Hispanic applications would be cut by almost half — from 26.8 percent to 12.9 percent.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. There are huge discrepancies in the quality of public education in the United States, leaving many minority students in low-income neighborhoods without a competitive education that would prepare them for college.

In light of this, Penn’s efforts amount to little more than a band-aid on a gushing wound. They simplify a complicated and difficult national issue that must be addressed at the early stages of formal education not at its endgame. Barriers from academic achievement are caused by socioeconomic differences. These differences often correlate with race but do not result from it. Why, then, should race — not socioeconomic factors such as family income or environment — be the determinant factor in college admissions?

Many people think that Penn and other colleges nationwide have begun to shift toward socioeconomic considerations, but nothing has actually changed for many applicants.

The first step in fixing this problem is in the application.

Colleges should eliminate any question concerning race from applications. If students feel that their racial identity or culture makes a contribution to them as an applicant, they have every right to portray this either through their extracurricular interests or their essays.

Admission officers should instead be able to evaluate student’s socioeconomic backgrounds. This would mean the end of need-blind admissions but it would benefit rather than harm those with low incomes.

Significantly more background information should be provided concerning the applicant’s school. Information about average SAT scores of students at that school, graduation rates and the school’s performance compared to others in the state could serve as invaluable pieces of information.

This would allow admissions officers to much more effectively compare the performance of a student from Greencastle-Antrim — the worst high school by graduation rate in Pennsylvania at 36.1 percent — to one at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire where over 30 percent of students attend Ivy-League universities.

Such revisions would allow Penn both to achieve its own mission to increase access and be more true to affirmative action’s original mission to create a level playing field.

We must decide what types of diversity are truly worth pursing. Race unto itself just isn’t one of them.

Kyle Henson is a College junior from Harrisburg, Pa. His email address is khenson@sas.upenn.edu. The Logical Skeptic appears every other Tuesday.

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