Max Scheiber | Working your fingers to the bone

Maximal Freedom | Making sure affirmative action captures the whole story

· November 5, 2012, 1:44 am

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Max Scheiber
Maximal Freedom

Last week, Jed Bradshaw, a freshman at Duke University, wrote a controversial column arguing against race-based affirmative action. His article in Duke’s independent student newspaper, The Chronicle, argues that affirmative action gives its beneficiaries an excuse to slack off in the college admissions process.

“If I want to attend the college of my choice strongly enough, I should be expected to work my fingers to the bone,” he wrote.

While I agree that race-based affirmative action is antiquated and nonsensical, I disagree with Bradshaw’s contention that affirmative action encourages students to work less.

Affirmative action — in its proper form — rewards hard-working students from a disadvantaged background for their extra efforts.

The college admissions process is very much biased toward traditional high school students with good GPAs and SAT scores. While these metrics accurately measure the academic performance of students who have the time to study, it places others at a disadvantage. It would be fair to assume that high school students who have to work 20 hours a week to support their families — all while maintaining an impressive slate of extracurricular activities — are more likely to have lower grades.

Affirmative action, therefore, is intended to ensure that students who are otherwise qualified have the same opportunities.

However, in its current state, affirmative action encourages university admissions counselors to stereotype and generalize. If an applicant from a racial minority has a relatively low GPA or SAT score, colleges likely assume that it’s because he or she had to work a full-time job. Or they run the risk of being even more racist by assuming that said that poor grades were somehow correlated to the color of their skin.

This kind of affirmative action hurts the group it’s trying to help. The upper-middle class student from an under-represented minority who gains a massive admissions boost because a university wants to appear superficially diverse is a classic example of this systemic abuse.

Affirmative action also tricks students into attending competitive colleges that they are not fully prepared for. Admitting a student to Penn when he or she might do much better at Penn State, constitutes a disservice.

Instead of looking at a student’s background and drawing conclusions about the hardships in their life, admissions counselors should strive to understand each student’s story. Students, in turn, have the duty to articulate their stories truthfully on their applications.

Archetypal college admissions “numbers” don’t tell all about a student’s intelligence. Counselors must remember that every individual is different, even those who come from a similar background.

That’s not to say that admissions counselors shouldn’t place value on students’ GPA and SAT scores. These metrics are usually telling of the intelligence and work ethic of a student without extenuating circumstances. However, a student who was not afforded the same time to study as his or her peers because of such circumstances should be able to demonstrate those qualities in other ways.

Given that college admissions counselors use the essay to give a holistic view of the applicant, the ideal execution of affirmative action is really no different from how the admissions process works. Use the essay to show who you really are. In the same way that a student who heads a national organization may be given leeway in terms of GPA, admissions counselors should recognize activities like taking care of a sibling in the same light, instead of only letting it count if you have the right skin color.

In its ideal form, university admissions are designed to reward achievements both in and out of the classroom. Their affirmative action programs must be sure to reward the latter instead simply rewarding students for being born into a race or socioeconomic strata.

That’s a policy that truly gives equality of opportunity.

Max Scheiber is an Engineering and Wharton sophomore from Boca Raton, Fla. His email address is scheiber@wharton.upenn.edu. Follow him @MaxScheiber. “Maximal Freedom” appears every other Monday.

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