Guest column by Chelsea Keeler | Affirmative action today




S ay “affirmative action” — two of the hottest buzz words in past decades — and watch the negative response. But what do we know about it in today’s context? I remember sitting with my guidance counselor senior year at my privileged, primarily white high school and complaining about my chances at top-tier colleges. No school would choose another smart white girl because they had enough of those. Admissions teams were favoring minority students because they were “rare.” Conversations with friends touched on being one-thirty-second Native American. “That counts, right? They’re like the most underrepresented.”

But then I got accepted. All of my friends got accepted. Affirmative action wafted out of my mind as quickly as it had entered, and I went cruising off to a small liberal arts college. What about now? Where is affirmative action? More importantly, what is it doing?

The argument against affirmative action has gained some momentum since my time in high school. It’s easy to argue that higher test scores indicate higher intelligence and higher labor productivity in the workforce, that pushing underqualified students into universities decreases graduation rates and lowers future earnings. If white students have higher test scores than black students, that must be an indication that white students are simply smarter, so favoring less productive students only creates economic loss for the country. It’s hurting those it’s supposed to be helping, right?

Here’s the catch. Intelligence isn’t the biggest predictor of test scores — it’s socioeconomic status. Critics of affirmative action base their arguments on a completely faulty standard. Even arguments that aren’t as inaccurately sophisticated are naive. Affirmative action is like a parking lot. White students assume that spots reserved for minority students directly correlate to a spot they could have had, when in reality, that parking space would have been taken by someone a long time ago.

No matter which side of the coin you find yourself on, affirmative action is all around failing. Schools that abandon affirmative action for a base SAT score on the idea that admitted students all meet a certain intelligence requirement are ignoring the reality of socioeconomic status’ impact on test scores. Schools that cling to affirmative action are admitting higher percentages of minority students but are graduating these students at rates grossly lower than rates of white students . Is this success?

I have no easy answer to the structural inequity in college admissions, but I argue that affirmative action is fundamentally flawed. As topics surrounding college tuition, student loans and the necessity of further education continue to hold power in the political forum, I claim that affirmative action needs to join the conversation. We should have never stopped talking about it.

CHELSEA KEELER is a graduate student in the School of Social Policy & Practice. Her email address is ckeeler@sp2.upenn.edu.

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